The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Clare: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
I keep myself busy. Time goes faster that way.
I go to sleep alone, and wake up alone. I take walks. I work until I’m tired. I watch the wind play with the trash that’s been under the snow all winter. Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?
Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?
Henry : How does it feel? How does it feel? Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant. Then, with a start, you realize that the book you were holding, the red plaid cotton shirt with white buttons, the favorite black jeans and the maroon socks with an almost-hole in one heel, the living room, the about–to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen: all of these have vanished. You are standing, naked as a jaybird, up to your ankles in ice water in a ditch along an unidentified rural route. You wait a minute to see if maybe you will just snap right back to your book, your apartment, et cetera. After about five minutes of swearing and shivering and hoping to hell you can just disappear, you start walking in any direction, which will eventually yield a farmhouse, where you have the option of stealing or explaining. Stealing will sometimes land you in jail, but explaining is more tedious and time-consuming and involves lying anyway, and also sometimes results in being hauled off to jail, so what the hell.
The prologue is written in the first person, but switches between two narrators; Clare and Henry. There is little to indicate when the story is set, but Henry’s use of the word “apartment” places it within a fairly contemporary period, as does Clare’s comparison to “long ago” mariners’ wives. We know they are a couple by Clare’s lament at sleeping and waking alone. The mood is incredibly sad.
The extract is all about time and place, about how these are fundamentally different for Clare and Henry, and how this impacts their relationship. For Clare, time and place are stable and linear; for Henry they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. The narrative is framed as responses to a question.
Clare’s narrative is filled with loneliness, worrying and helpless longing. This is emphasised by the repetition of “it’s hard”, “alone” and “I wait”. She has no choice but to simply wait for Henry to re-appear. The short sentences and consonance of the “w” sound all echo a list; ways to pass time. Questions often start with a “w” word, so this adds to the general feeling of uncertainty. Clare’s narrative is short in comparison to Henry’s (this extract is about a third of the prologue and the rest of it is all from Henry) and touches only superficially on her day to day life. This is analogous of a life frequently on hold with not much worthy of note happening, but with a lot of time for reflection, and perhaps this is something she avoids; “Everything seems simple until you think about it. Why is love intensified by absence?” This must surely strike a chord with anyone who has had a long-distance relationship, or is geographically removed from family and friends. It draws the reader into Clare’s pain.
Clare’s use of the seafarers’ metaphor shows us that she has thought deeply about her situation and her commitment to Henry. The metaphor is particularly fitting in that she, like those women with whom she empathises, does not know when her partner will return but does know that he is very likely in danger. Clare addresses time itself in her last paragraph, painting an image of endless, relentless future moments which will each pass as slowly as those preceding. The repetition of “moment” accentuates this, and echoes how we measure and mark time in increments. They wait for her as she waits for Henry.
One can infer from this extract that place is almost equally as important as time. Henry can be gone for only minutes, or for longer periods – potentially years? During a protracted absence, Clare cannot move in case he re-appears and another family is living in their home, and he would not know where to find her. That place – home – is at least one constant she can assure him of.
That her position in time and place is stable means that Clare can safely take those for granted, and her focus is on Henry. This is not reciprocated in kind. Henry’s focus, when he disappears, is necessarily on himself; his safety and survival.
Henry’s narrative begins with repetition of the question posed, “How does it feel? How does it feel?” The inflection with which this first line is read sets the whole tone for Henry’s narrative so it will differ for each reader. Is he musing? Bitter? The laughing raconteur masking incredible stress? Pragmatic and slightly dismissive? I personally read it mainly in this latter tone because this uncontrollable disappearing into time and place unknown, appearing there naked, is a fact of life for Henry. But there is also some bitterness; this description he gives us of the phenomenon begins with ordinary domestic comfort, depicted in affectionate detail, from which he is then ripped without warning. The author uses rhythm and consonance to enhance the familiar and homely; a sock “with an almost-hole in one heel”, and “the about-to-whistle tea kettle in the kitchen”. To then heighten the sense of dislocation, she chooses a stark, cold scenario in which to drop Henry, “naked as a jaybird, up to [his] ankles in ice-water in a ditch”. Henry’s use of this slightly comic simile makes light of his plight, revealing an element of dismissiveness. The level of detail in Henry’s narrative, unlike Clare’s apathetic account of passing time, suggests that he places great value on his home life and appreciates the minutiae of the everyday.
Henry tells us that his first reaction upon finding himself suddenly relocated is to hope the episode will only last minutes, then when this ‘best-case scenario’ does not transpire, his search for clothing and shelter begins. This indicates he maintains some hope before resigning himself to repeating his search. It is evident from both narrators’ words that this has happened to Henry countless times. He explains that when it does, the two choices he has are to steal or to explain, and that both are likely to result in arrest.
Henry’s account leads one to consider his mental resilience and principles. He clearly knows that society considers stealing to be morally wrong, and the fact that he has tried the ‘explanation’ approach suggests he would rather not steal. It is evident that long exposure to trying this “more tedious and time-consuming” method, with the end result – jail – sometimes being the same as the ‘stealing’ option, has de-sensitised Henry to contravening this moral code by which most of us live; “so what the hell”. Given that his disappearances cannot be predicted or prevented, and that he could land anywhere in any time, it is hard to imagine how Henry can ever relax. This must take a toll on his mental health, and probably heightens his emotional dependence on his life with Clare.
One also wonders about how young Henry was when these disappearances started, and how he survived if he was just a child. The title of the book tells us that Henry is married, we presume to Clare, so we question how they make that relationship work. What about other family members? Close friends? Do they know or do Clare and Henry have a ‘cover story’? Do they have children? This prologue goes on to describe many different scenarios in which Henry has found himself and ends with his intimate observations of Clare expressing his love for her. It is such an unusual premise, and crosses genres of love story, thriller, science-fiction, that it must surely draw most people in to find out more.
This part of the course was a little strange for me. I found the introduction and first project only mildly interesting and not at all engaging, so was feeling quite demotivated. However, from Project 2 onwards where the learning is about the craft of writing, and involves a lot of analysis, I have absolutely loved it. I read all the time, and usually have at least one physical book and one audiobook on the go at any one time and am interested in a fair number of genres. To have the freedom to use my favourite works as the tool to examine and better assimilate basic theory was extremely enjoyable because as well as providing a clear example of the theory and cementing my understanding, it gave a fresh perspective on pieces that are highly familiar. I find myself watching films now and assigning character archetypes, or thinking, “ah, there’s the Call to Adventure”!
I don’t habitually read poetry, I may look one up if it is referenced in a book, as they sometimes are at the beginnings of chapters, and the line catches my interest. I do take close notice of song lyrics, which to my mind are simply poetry set to music. My favourite bands (Depeche Mode, George Michael, The Cure) employ beautiful, thought-provoking, disturbing lyrics and this is a large part of why I love their work. One thing I am looking forward to doing as a result of these studies is look for poetic devices in their lyrics. I bought Kate Bush’s book of all her lyrics last year – ‘How to be Invisible’ – I expect this to be a veritable goldmine!
I vaguely remember studying poetic devices at school and reading ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas, by which I was captivated. My subsequent academic and professional route has taken me away from Literature so to rediscover his work and be given guidance to study it has been a joy. I don’t think I have come across ‘close reading’ before. I have found it makes me feel as though I have somehow experienced the work more fully and that the regular way of reading is superficial in comparison.
Applying a close reading to an extract from a novel is an interesting exercise. I believe most of these thoughts do occur to a reader on perhaps a more subconscious level but they are not examined since there exists the expectation that the answers will be delivered in the course of the tale. I wonder if to articulate the questions and infer possible answers from the available information in, say, a prologue, before continuing on with the novel changes the reading experience? I will try it when I start my next book. If nothing else, it will heighten the sense of anticipation in starting a new journey.
I used the lists of prompt questions from the preceding exercises as a guide in my assignment piece, but found that further questions naturally followed on from each point of analysis. The idea of reader-response is I think, particularly pertinent to this extract because of the extreme nature of the protagonists’ situation. The book’s prologue is certainly designed to illicit an emotional response, and since emotions are subjective, readers will hear Henry’s voice in a variety of ways. It seems that the ambiguity could perhaps be deliberate. The close reading exercise has made me want to read the book again, but it is currently on loan to a friend so I’ll have to wait!