No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

2018/17: Time Was -- Ian McDonald

"That's them," Thorn said. "I'm sure of it. But ..."
I have never been able to resist the word "but." It's the ragged edge of the photograph, the texture of a provenance disturbing the flat perfection of a book. [loc. 275]
Book dealer Emmett Leigh, skimming stock at a closing-down Spitalfields bookshop, finds a slim volume of poetry entitled 'Time Was'. The author is anonymous, identified only by initials: more intriguingly, the book contains a letter from one soldier, Tom, to his lover Ben. Emmett (whose own romantic record is nothing to write home about) is fascinated by the letter and eager to find out more about Tom and Ben: his researches lead him to other copies of 'Time Was', and to photographs of the two men together. They always look more or less the same age, but the photos and letters date from different eras, different wars: Norfolk in 1915, Alexandria in 1942, the Crimea in 1856, Bosnia in 1993 ...

Ian McDonald's novella encompasses the Shingle Street mystery (rumours of a failed German invasion in 1940, and burned bodies washing up on the beach of this small Suffolk village) with the Rendlesham incident (UFO sightings in a Suffolk forest in the winter of 1980). It's a love story -- actually, it's two love stories, though Emmett's affair with the redoubtable Thorn is somewhat derailed by his growing obsession -- and a story about identity. (I did wonder why Emmett didn't make an obvious connection.)

Beautifully written with a cracking sense of place -- whether Shingle Street, Spitalfields or Rome -- and a real poignancy. This could have been fleshed out to novel-length (perhaps with more from Tom, and especially from Ben), but it says all that needs saying in novella form.

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