Why Should I Read...?
The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger, 2004
Uniquely among the books on my list, I've only read this once--and a single reading is enough to know that this is a magnificent novel. Combining a "why didn't I think of that?" central concept with two beautifully realised protagonists and a heart-breaking climax, it's hard to imagine a more compelling romantic novel.
The novel is structured around the extended relationship of Henry and Clare. Henry suffers from a genetic condition which causes him to time-travel unpredictably across his lifespan, and as a result he meets Clare, who is to become his wife, when he is an adult and she still a child. He knows how the relationship will develop, but she does not: later in life, when Clare meets Henry "for real", she knows they will marry, but he does not. Niffenegger handles the time-travel paradoxes with skill--while The Time Traveler's Wife was not marketed as science-fiction, science-fiction it most assuredly is, but that's a hobby-horse for another day.
It becomes apparent early in the novel that Henry's time-travelling does not persist beyond his early forties, and with gloomy foreboding we come to realise that it is his death which will put a stop to it. Niffenegger imbues the characters with such vitality that we hope against hope (with occasional encouragement from the author) that we are wrong, but as the novel races towards its climax, the conclusion is inescapable. And while the ending is not by any means a happy one, it is uplifting in a bittersweet way wholly in keeping with what has gone before, at once both unexpected and appropriate.
One of the prime achievements of the book is to make it into print at all. In synopsis it must have seemed all but unpublishable: a chronology all but impossible to describe, and a science-fictional premise underpinning a novel which could only ever have been aimed at a mainstream audience. If any one element of the whole had not worked--if the timeline had unravelled, if the characters had been flat, if the ending had been pedestrian--I suspect the whole thing would have collapsed. But Niffenegger is pitch-perfect throughout. The result is a quirky, brilliant, unclassifiable novel which, against all the odds, became the international hit it deserved to be.
How has it influenced me?
This is the most contemporary work on my list, and I would be hard-put to find any direct line of succession to The Dog of the North, the only novel I've written since. But it's always encouraging to find speculative fiction enjoying mainstream success, and so it must have weighed to some extent in my decision to submit my own writing to Macmillan. And in the ending of The Dog of the North, I try for that mixture of poignance and congruence which Niffenegger so perfectly achieves, even if in rather a different way.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
If it's good enough, it will sell--even if it's uncategorisable.
Sometimes the biggest hits come from doing something no-one else has ever tried.
No matter how avant-garde your premise, make sure you do the basics right: compelling, vivid characters and rigorous control of plot and pacing.
The most powerful endings combine several often contradictory emotions.