The Map of Time. El mapa del tiempo. Le carte du temps. Die Landkarte der Zeit. This feels like one of those massive international 'moments' for genre fiction - like The Name of the Rose and mystery maybe - when a novel has the potential to be read so widely and discussed so fully that in the end it will be hard to escape the buzz - whatever you make of it, and whether it really is genre fiction, or not. By the time it is released in this country, it will already have been published in twenty languages. Compared in advance word to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Time Traveller's Wife and The Shadow of the Wind it is something of a sensation in the making. The knock on effects for speculative fiction may be extremely beneficial to the genre.
Part of the reason for this might be the sheer scale and almost madcap ambition of the book. At times I put it down in amazement, really, and marvelled at the complete nerve of Palma in telling this tale the way he does - so unfashionably escapist, romantic, self-effacing and charming that it is, yet complex and ingenious. It is a novel completely unafraid to sideline apparently central narratives, leap wildly about in terms of what is 'real' within the novel and what is not, and manipulate historical accuracy with gleeful abandon. It is filled with action, romance, philosophy and head bothering time paradox. It is a total delight.
There are just so many inventive little nods to the fictional genres the story inhabits - there is a character in the fictional Wells's world called Jeff Wayne, for example, automatons have become so powerful at one point they threaten humanity like some steampunk Terminator story, and a time traveller who has gone back in time to influence the past is even called Rhys (Reese??). Brilliant, too, is the magical little storyline Palma weaves about the physical time machine Wells keeps in his attic! There will be many more of these superb asides in the book I have missed - to the extent that it will need to be read at least twice to pick them all up. The whole thing is relayed by the ultimate in omniscient narrators - slightly arch, roguish, sentimental. It's a device that can crash and burn, but not here.
Some critics may weigh in heavily on some of these plot feints and devices, but they'll be missing the glorious saturday morning serial wonder of it all I think. It's such an ambitious novel, it'll just be one of those books where everything you read about it might indeed be true, and you'll have to read it yourself to see where you stand. It has the potential to be a The Da Vinci Code for 2011, for that reason. But it is a much, much better book.
For Shade Point, it was always going to be a home banker, mind you. I'm a huge fan of HG Wells, stories about time travel, Victoriana, and so on. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this mad alternative fact/fiction world was never going to miss. I mentioned quite a few books at the opening of this review, and the comparisons to those are clear, but as a guide the book it reminds me of most - in terms of the atmosphere, the 'feel' of it - is Mark Frost's wonderful The List of Seven, a novel that deserves much more attention than it actually gets. In fact, so fond is my memory of Frost's book, and so often do I reference it, that I really must read it again for this site - just to check that it is as good as I remember! Due to the HG Wells/Jack the Ripper element, there may also be comparisons made with Time After Time, which is a fun piece of time travelling hokum I have a bit of a soft spot for!
Enjoyable romp though it is, I don't want to leave The Map of Time in bestseller land, in case I've just conveyed a sense of it as only escapist flim-flam. It is and it isn't. It does have an innocent delight in magical storytelling, and has great fun playing with the reader, there are robots and fighting, but it also carries a significant emotional impact - a bit like Graham Joyce's brilliant The Silent Land which I reviewed last month. As I said, it makes us think about the choices we make, the people we love, and the fleeting nature of time. It is about artistic achievement and what makes great art transcend time, and the art of writing itself, how it can capture or save time and memory in the making and telling. It considers the very human desire for something of us to remain, to sustain, and how indeed this might be achieved - by the imagination, perhaps, by love? I found the ending of The Map of Time quite profoundly moving, and put it down with the sense that I had read a really wonderful book. 500 pages flew by in an instant, as if viewed from the upholstered cockpit of the Time Machine imagined by that amazing Mr Wells.