The thief of time
By John Boyne
- The thief of time
Author: John Boyne
- ISBN: 9780552776158
- Published: April 2000
- Pages: 522
- Format reviewed: Paperback
- Review date: 15/12/2021
- Language: English
I picked this book up some time ago as I like tales of immortality and time and what not, and it seemed intriguing that the same author who wrote The boy in the striped pajamas would write an historical fantasy. Of course it's one of those books that people who don't like fantasy will tell you it isn't, and will still read it in that safe comfort of knowing they are reading contemporary historical fiction instead. I guess there could be people who have slipped through the passage of time unknown, however unlikely that may be. The Thief of time was the author's first novel, published over twenty years ago, and does show some of the author's talent that came to be realised in some of later other works such as The Ladder to the Sky, The House of Special Purpose, Crippen, the mildly controversial A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom and of course that one already mentioned about striped pajamas.
Narrated in the first person, the story alternates between the relative present of 1999 and the protagonist's (Matthieu Zela) journey through his 256 years of life (Born in Paris 1743). It wasn't until the 1790's that he realised he'd stopped ageing and has appeared as a middle-aged man ever since (just like Paul Rudd), with no sign that he is going to physically get any older. In that time Matthieu has had a variety of careers, massed a considerable amount of wealth, been married on 19 occasions and has seen nine generations of nephews (all named Thomas) born and die young in unique circumstances. He's been a thief, a rogue, an engineer, a soldier, a movie mogul, an architect and much more besides.
The two main threads of life - just before the 21st century as he contemplates his current nephew (called Thomas of course) and what untimely demise might befall him - along with the 18th century, of him growing up with his half-brother Thomas and first love Dominique Sauvet as they move from France to England and try to eke out an existence - are inter-spaced with some of the defining moments of his long life. And he's mixed with some important people and events over the years, from the French Revolution and inaugural modern Olympics of 1896 to meeting the "prisoner of the Vatican" Pope Pius IX, the 31st president of the United States Herbert Hoover, and that star of the silent film Charlie Chaplin. He's witnessed the Wall Street crash of 1929 and played a part in Queen Victoria's Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace.
As you might imagine with all this going on, it's not the shortest of books at over 500 pages, but it doesn't feel overly long, just enough time given to Matthieu's past and present to tell the story it needs to. It's an intriguing story as well, I really enjoyed the dips into the past - both from our fairly recent past of 1999 and to the 18th and 19th century. The author has clearly done a lot of research to create an authentic air of the times he writes about, and while some historical purists might nit-pic a few inaccuracies (I didn't notice any), it's clever and embracing and has enough detail to feel like the character is really living through that period. It's very gentle as far as being a fantasy is concerned, there isn't much detail given as to the why's of his inability to age, instead that lack of explanation forms part of the plot itself. The transition between threads is handled well, and was at no point confusing or disorientating.
It has some great writing, especially for a first novel and as possibly befitting being narrated by someone over 250 years old, has an unhurried, almost whimsical pace. I loved how the author compares the past and present, like when pondering an 80 mile walk:
The passage of time has made what was once not only possible but also commonplace now seem beyond all human endurance
It is in itself quite contemplative how in some ways our society and the things we take for granted have changed so much - I know some people who will get in their car for an 80 meter walk, never mind 80 miles. Each thread and excerpt from history are presented in a good light and both main threads have sufficient hooks for the reader to find out what's going to happen next. What will play out with young Matthieu and the complicated relationship of first love Dominique? What will happen with the current Thomas - they always manage to have a male child before they die an untimely death - but will it be different this time around?
The thief of time is an ambitious, entertaining novel that is skilfully told with a strong premise and an ending that really delivers.
Written on 15th December 2021 by Ant .