The Map of Time by esteemed Spanish author Felix J. Palma is a mesmerising work of literary fiction with speculative aspects and pays unabashed homage to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Expertly translated from Palma’s native Spanish by Nick Caistor, The Map of Time is finally ready to enthrall English speaking readers with its lyrical prose and unique narrative voice.
Our story begins in 1896 London where H. G. Well’s latest ‘Scientific Romance’, The Time Machine, is the talk of fashionable and unfashionable society alike, resulting in a craze for anything and everything to do with time travel. To some, it offers a chance to see the future; to others, a chance to change the past… and for some, it offers a last hope to cling to. Two such individuals are Andrew Harrington and Claire Haggerty. Andrew counts down to suicide as he is overwhelmed by guilt surrounding the death of his beloved at the hands of Jack the Ripper eight years previously. Claire, on the other hand, believes she was born far too early and feels smothered by the constraints of Victorian society. Certain she cannot be satisfied in the current era, Claire longs for a far off future where she may truly belong. Thus, when a new time travel company appears to offer each the opportunity to fulfil their greatest wish, both Andrew and Claire embrace the notion with open arms. However, nothing is as it seems, and it falls to the author whose work inspired their dreams to deal with the inevitable consequences.
Just who is the narrator anyway?
The novel is divided into 3 distinct parts, each of which stands superficially as its own separate story. However, the plots of these tales become firmly entwined as the tale progresses, just as the lives of the characters become entangled with that of H. G. Wells. By the end of the third act, all the separate storylines have come together and events which went unexplained in one part are accounted for in the context of another.
One of the most distinctive aspects of this novel is the unique narrative style. The omnipresent narrator that guides the reader throughout the tale is a character in their own right. They are shameless in dropping hints regarding their identity and powers, sharing their opinion on matters afoot, and digressing from the main plot to pass over ‘the dull parts’ (for instance, a carriage ride between locations). Although I’ve heard quite a few readers decry this as unnecessarily tangental and distracting from the story, I believe first and foremost that it is this narration which makes the novel stand out from others. I found the narrator quite fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed their witty commentary regarding society and mankind.
Beautiful prose and believable characters
The prose throughout A Map of Time is lyrical and flowing, a credit to both the author and the translator. I found it extremely difficult to tell that the novel was not originally written in English.
In addition, Palma’s characters are three dimensional, believable and relateable. At times, their decisions are foolish or downright reprehensible, and not a single character is without their flaws. Nevertheless, I found it difficult not to like and sympathize with these imperfect individuals as they seek to find purpose, achieve a goal, or right the wrongs of the past. Wells himself is an interesting character, embodying a mixture of noble and ignoble traits, who finds himself embroiled in the lives of the true protagonists through duty and the entreaties of his wife, Jane.
Is this really ‘speculative fiction?’
Throughout the novel, the plot takes a number of unexpected twists and turns that may have readers feeling cheated, scratching their heads, and wondering what it is exactly that they are reading. The unexplained and the mundane become almost indistinguishable to the point where the reader mistrusts their own ability to tell between truth and lies, the real and the imagined. Nevertheless, all becomes clear by the end of the novel and I, for one, was not disappointed. Any more than that, I will not say for fear of spoiling it, so you’ll have to find out the answers yourself!
True to its literary roots, The Map of Time explores some thought provoking philosophical and metaphysical questions. For instance, what happens if we alter history? Do we really have a right to the future? Perhaps even more essential to the plot are the questions involving truth, lies, and the human experience. What matters most, truth or happiness? Is a cruel truth truly better than a beautiful lie? And when it comes down to it, is there really that much of a difference between the two?
Why should you read this book?
The Map of Time is a truly unique reading experience that should appeal to fans of literary and speculative fiction alike. Although it won’t suit the tastes of every reader, I would recommend it to almost anyone as something that simply must be tried—if only for its sheer distinctiveness compared to most other contemporary works . You’ll either love or hate it, but either way you’ll have read something truly unlike anything that’s come before, the echoes of which will remain with you long after you turn the final page.
Michelle received a review copy of this book courtesy of Scribe Australia.