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 own thoughts about Palma’s prose “inevitably produc[ing] boredom in the reader, or if not, then a profound aversion to what he is reading.”
Despite his verbosity, Palma demonstrates a real skill at storytelling, especially character development and narrative suspense. Aside from Jane Wells, whose motivations we don’t have access to, the cast of important characters is rather flawed and narrow-minded; but that is what makes them interesting. Andrew Harrington’s raffishness does not disappear once he satisfies himself that he saved Marie Kelly; a renewed zest for life and all of its pleasures merely augments it. Claire Haggerty’s arrogance and class prejudice is not overlooked because of her feminist ideology, but rather complicates our understanding of the risks she takes in order to unite with Shackleton. And Wells’s self-serving nature, revealed in his incentive for ghost-writing Shackleton’s love letters, speaks to the inadequacies in his own romantic relationships. Moreover, the brief appearances by James and Stoker capitalize on their celebrated reputations by generating nuanced caricatures highlighting their ostensible eccentricities. Palmer’s Wells assesses each in line with the historical Wells’s well-documented opinions of his late-Victorian contemporaries:
Wells concluded that the only thing he and James had in common was that they both spent their lives tapping away on typewriters, though he was unaware that his fellow author was now too fastidious to perform such a laborious mechanical task, preferring instead to dictate his work to a stenographer. If Wells recognized any merit in James, it was his undeniable talent for using very long sentences to say nothing at all.
Having used most of his disdain up on James, Wells’s introduction of Stoker is a bit more subdued, though no less mean-spirited. These jabs at Wells’s contemporaries offer comic relief in the midst of action that is all too serious in subject matter: whether or not the three authors live to publish The Invisible Man, The Turn of the Screw, and Dracula. Although this is historical fact for readers, in The Map of Time anything is possible.
Palma’s talent for character development is enough of a reward for those up to the challenge of reading a lengthy text, but The Map of Time’s exploration of alternate realities also makes perusing the book a worthwhile endeavor. Wells and his own famous narrative act as foils to the assumption that time travel is a given fact in Palma’s Victorian London. Palma introduces each of his three main parts as acts in a melodrama, a risk that pays off handsomely. While overwrought scenarios are typical in a genre whose focus is on emotional manipulation, melodrama as conceived in The Map of Time prepares readers for narratives that may be unbelievable except in a world where time travel is possible.
Unfortunately, the narrator does not perform as he should in his role as The Map of Time’s Master of Ceremonies. His inconsistent interjections break the fourth wall and make for a glaring error in the novel’s construction. Setting himself up as an arbiter of taste in storytelling, he fails to meet that expectation. For example, in the early pages of the book, the reader must endure a description of Harrington falling in love with Marie Kelly that is syrupy and clichéd:
They burned with a single flame, and when it waned and Marie Kelly, staring dreamily up at the ceiling, began talking about springtime in Paris, where she had worked as an artist’s model some years before, and about her childhood in Wales and in Ratcliffe Highway in London, Andrew understood that this strange sensation in his chest must be the pangs of love, because without meaning to, he was experiencing all the emotions of which the poets spoke.
When one considers Kelly’s profession — a veteran street prostitute working the dirtiest area of London — she can hardly have been the spring flower that Harrington depicts. As a narrator claiming omniscience and a degree of perspective in the world that The Map of Time presents, his intrusions are jarring and unreliabile, although occasionally entertaining when they do appear.
The narrator aside, Palma’s talent for producing multifaceted characters made me invest in their lives and buy into the plot. Fans of Wells will find that, despite the book’s claim that he “did not have the makings of a hero” and was, therefore, “a secondary character in the novel, someone to whom others, the story’s true protagonists, came to for help,” he really steals the show.