So why am I reviewing a 3-year-old book that was huge and pretty much everyone already knows about?
One reason is that Niffenegger's big novel touches on just about everything - fate, memory, happiness, fear, bereavement, illness, disability, religion, the future, hope, love, self-destructive anger, sex, jealousy, self-centredness and existential problems about the self, including that feeling of being disconnected from something important. The author's genius is to not simply to create the bizarre concept of a man with a time-displacement disorder, slipping out of time to other points in his or his wife's lives, but the genius is in how she makes this situation human, and then uses it to explore the way we look at ourselves, our relationships, our lives.
In the course of its pages, which plot out the relationship between Henry de Tamble the time-traveller and his great love (and time-static) Clare, we identify with Clare, as she feels the distance in the relationship created by time, and also (for instance) as she struggles with commitment to Henry and feels guilt about that - and has to conquer her fears for their future, often through producing some quite bizarre, and physical, art. But we also appreciate Henry's often strange reflections on life and how it works, and we can understand the way he resents the other version of himself he meets in his future; Niffenegger knows how, during the confusing teenage years, we can have ambiguous, even hostile, feelings about ourselves and our bodies. What is more, in the way Henry studies his older self, Niffenegger clearly perceives our resentment of those who have a better sense of security than ourselves, and reflects on how us creative types want to be in control of our own lives, not merely feel we are fitting in to a pattern laid out for us.
The book is filled with astute observations of how we work. Often the author draws attention to the human body, I think to celebrate the excellence of the way we work, move, interact, reproduce, and sometimes showing how frail we are and the enormous problems caused by just one thing being wrong with us. It seems to warn us to make the most of our time, and not to play around with other people's lives, something we do when we are young and impatient with what life is giving us. Niffenegger uses all kinds of settings and situations (a club in Chicago, a Christmas day mass, the apartment Henry's dad has let deteriorate) to examine how we treat those around us, and the way our values change as we become older.
Although it is mostly concerned with Henry's survival, Clare's next big challenge and the love story, there is a section some time after the midway point where it becomes too much about representing their feelings abstractly, through dreams and other more obvious techniques. And the book bares all, including the ugly side of attempting to conceive a child, and some unhelpfully explicit details of their sex life (outrageously, the incredible gift of sex is exploited for our analysis and entertainment purposes when the sensation is designed to be shared between two people and not compared and dissected).
Having said that, Niffenegger clearly knows what makes a good yarn, and has read her Homer. The end of the novel is exceptionally well done, finding a neat (and intriguingly non-spiritual) solution which still leaves you feeling full of hope for the pair of lovers and for the time ahead, widening our own horizons: What things have we yet to see, and to discover? What are we holding on for?