Worlds of imagination in a time-traveller's memoir

The debut novel by Elan Mastai mixes time travel paradigms with a healthy dash of humour.

Elan Mastai
Penguin Random House


Elan Mastai's first novel is a fantastic romp through time and across continents. The narrator, Tom Barren, starts by telling us how he got from his world to ours. His world was still in 2016, but more technologically advanced, in the mould of The Jetsons (e.g., there are hovercars, and food is tailored to your tastes). However, the world as we know it, in 2016, apparently has the edge in music!

This journey was done by time-travel, using a machine invented by his genius, yet impersonal, father, and works by harnessing the earth's endless energy by a machine invented in 1965 by Lionel Gottreider, successfully implemented in his world.

As with any time-travelling tale, there are conundrums, philosophical discussions and existential enigmas. I found myself comparing dilemmas and events in other books and films: does only one timeline exist at any single point in time, rendering all others non-existent, as in Sliding Doors, and Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World? Or can people, (maybe only the time-traveller), remember other lives, and become a convergence of many memories/talents/personalities, as in The Time Traveller's Wife?

One character said "compared to love, physics was a relief. The human heart is as complex and intractable as a thorny physics problem, worse actually, because physics has solutions, and the heart only has questions''.

The love-interest character, Penelope, has a completely different personality in different timelines, as do Tom's parents, and a sassy sister exists in one world but not another. How do you make a decision that may impact positively on the world, but negatively on your loved ones? These are the puzzles Tom has to think through and try to solve with help or hindrance from Lionel Gottreider. Do you leave things as they are, or try to improve them at the risk of making them worse?

The book has more than 130 short chapters, so it's easy to read, and continually springs surprises as well as points to ponder. Once or twice I got a bit lost in the explanations, and Tom himself says, "trying to keep this time-travel crap straight in your head is a chore''. But on the whole I could follow the plot.

Humour is ever-present, whether wry life commentary , a farcical situation, or laugh-out-loud dialogue.

Mastai is a visionary writer who conveys complex ideas by downplaying his own understanding, making you realise it doesn't really matter how it works, but keeping the action moving with light-heartedness, and fantastic imagination.

Rachel Gurney is an avid Dunedin reader.

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