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Book Review

Wish fulfillment via time travel and famous authors

By Steve Donoghue
July 21, 2011

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‘I must confess’’ says a character in Felix J. Palma’s wonderful, boisterous novel “The Map of Time,’’ “when I read the novel I thought it was rather an ingenious way of making what was basically a fantasy believable.’’ The novel in question is “The Time Machine’’ by H.G. Wells, in which a scientist invents the titular machine and travels to Earth’s far distant and dystopian future. Wells wrote his book in 1895, and subsequent authors have been rewriting it, twisting it, and adapting it ever since. Palma finds the concept so irresistible he revisits it three times in this one novel.

The three sections of “The Map of Time’’ deal with the three main wish-fulfillments of time travel. In the first, set in Victorian London during the murderous rampage of Jack the Ripper, the dream is “what if we could go back in time and change some crucial event?’’ The book’s second section, in which a vivacious, strong-willed woman seeks to escape the strictures of that same Victorian era, speaks to the yearning of “if only I’d been born in a different time.’’ And Palma’s third section (the tautest and in many ways the most satisfying), in which Wells and Bram Stoker and Henry James uncover a plot by someone manipulating time-travel for gain, explores the idea of changing not just a single event but the past itself.

Palma undertakes all three sections with irrepressible gusto, metafictional conceits, and a Fieldingesque busy-body narrator who promises (slyly) to reveal things “all in good time,’’ often urging the reader to be patient: “Yes, I know that when I began this tale I promised there would be a fabulous time machine, and there will be . . .’’ Readers of taut, action-packed contemporary thrillers - which are sometimes barely pit stops on the way to their own movie adaptations - will need to reacquaint themselves with the reading expectations of a bygone era.

Everybody else will be mesmerized. “The Map of Time’’ was a bestseller in Spain and throughout Europe, and here, in Nick Caistor’s English translation, it offers a rich bounty for readers to enjoy, the ultimate lush, compulsively readable summer book. The three parts of the novel don’t fit together perfectly, and there’s narrative profusion that at times feels self-indulgent (a tougher editor could have shaved off a quarter of this novel’s length without hitting any vital spots). But in compensation Palma churns out endless amusing digressions to his shaggy-dog main plot, plus the fun of eavesdropping as iconic 19th-century authors contemplate each other and themselves, as when Stoker is astonished to learn the future of the book he’s just written: “Although you do not know it yet, Mr. Stoker, although you would never dare even to dream of it, your novel will become the third most popular book in the English language, after the Bible and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ ’’

Wells (“[a]pparently chance considered him a most amusing toy,’’ we’re told) is the focal point here, and the presiding irony is that the real dystopian future threatening the novel’s characters is the one we already inhabit. “[W]hat lies ahead, gentlemen, is truly dreadful,’’ our heroes are warned at one point, “far worse than in your innocent tale, Mr. Wells.’’ That tale is revealed to be not quite so innocent - Palma has steeped himself in the Victorian period and brings it marvelously to life - and in its reworkings we get a lavish entertainment very nearly equal to the original. Sequels are welcome.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and can be reached at st.donoghue@gmail.com.

THE MAP OF TIME

By Felix J. Palma

Translated, from the Spanish, by Nick Caistor

Atria, 611 pp., $26