I finished this book with one overriding question: is the story historically reliable? Of course, it doesn’t have to be: fiction is by definition inventive. Yet Palma’s skill at weaving together undeniable realities of the Victorian era with plausible but imagined historical details required more than one trip to my bookshelf to parse out the truth. Formally emulating the familiar Victorian triple-decker, Palma’s novel upends the expected with a plot that betrays you just as you think you’ve figured it out.
As the novel’s title suggests, The Map of Time (originally published in Spain in 2008) is a story about time travel. Split into three parts, the book opens with an alternate history of Jack the Ripper’s brutal murder spree through the Whitechapel area of London in 1888, focusing on a liaison between his last victim, Marie Kelly, and her fictional middle-class lover, Andrew Harrington. This first part is narrated from Harrington’s point of view as he contemplates suicide eight years after Kelly’s death — until, that is, his cousin Charles Winslow implores him to travel back in time in H.G. Wells’s machine to save his lost love.
Part Two shifts course entirely, as we are introduced to Claire Haggerty, a proto-feminist “New Woman” stuck in a predictable middle-class life. Class and gender constraints demand that Haggerty choose among suitors whose pursuits include money and the continuation of their family names. But when Haggerty discovers Murray’s Time Travel, a new company that offers temporal adventures, she meets the man that will change her future: Captain Derek Shackleton, savior of the human race in the year 2000. It is not Wells’s machine but rather the author’s writing talent that saves the Haggerty-Shackleton romance, bridging time and language barriers to bring an unlikely pair together.
Wells moves to center stage in Part Three, learning for himself whether the fourth dimension is actually penetrable or just a prop in novels such as his own. When Wells discovers the eponymous map of time in an abandoned London house reputed to be haunted, he learns of its world of parallel possibilities and risks erasing the one he currently inhabits. Circumstances, including fortuitous cameos by Henry James and Bram Stoker, force Wells to decide his own destiny, including whether to remain with his second wife, Jane.
With such rich detail and well-wrought narratives, each part of The Map of Time could have been its own complete story, marketed as a trilogy. This likely would have been the case were it not for Palma’s efforts to emulate voluminous Victorian popular fiction. (He has, however, spawned a series, with the second volume, The Map of the Sky, due for release later this year.) His loquacious text reaches more than 600 pages, but notwithstanding fidelity to the genres it pastiches, I wonder whether he could have economized. Assuming that his readers may not have read Wells’s The Time Machine, Palma, for instance, takes it upon himself to provide a lengthy summary. And passages late in the book that describe Murray’s Time Travel and the war between humans and automatons in the year 2000 are near replicas of earlier ones. This is fascinating in its first permutation, tiresome by its third. Ironically, when Wells’s character directs scathing comments at an unpublished volume written by a hopeful writer, he inadvertently summed up my ow...read more