By Audrey Niffenegger
McAdam/Cage Publishing 2003
When Clare first meets Henry, it’s Friday September 23, 1977. She is six and he is 36. But when Henry first meets Clare it’s Saturday October 26, 1991 and he is 28; she 20.
Thus begins Audrey Niffenegger’s novel about Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire, a couple in love but separated by the space of time. Henry has a rare genetic disorder that causes him to uncontrollably travel through time. He revisits parts of his past, as well as the lives of those he loves at a time before he knew them. Henry time travels without warning to himself or those around him, though stress and alcohol appear to trigger his disappearances. When Henry vanishes from present time, he leaves behind his clothes and all possessions that he’d had with him. This leaves him naked and vulnerable wherever he reappears and he’s forced to steal in order to feed and clothe himself.
It is in the library where Henry works that he first meets 20-year-old Clare. Though he has never met her before, she has known him most of her life. Clare’s first encounter with Henry is when his future self – at age 36 – travels back in time to meet her – a young six-year-old – in the meadow by her family’s farmhouse. He returns there multiple times throughout her childhood until her 18th birthday. After this Clare does not see Henry again for another two years when they both meet in present time. From the time she a is six-year-old girl, Clare spends the rest of her life waiting for Henry. Waiting for their brief visits and then waiting for him to return to their shared life in the future.
From Clare’s perspective,
“Henry is an artist of another sort, a disappearing artist. Our life together in this too-small apartment is punctuated by Henry’s small absences. Sometimes he disappears unobtrusively; I might be walking from the kitchen into the hall and find a pile of clothing on the floor. I might get out of bed in the morning and find the shower running and no one in it… Sometimes I wake up in the night and Henry is gone. In the morning he will tell me where he’s been, the way other husbands might tell their wives a dream they had.”
Henry’s time travel is a complicated concept to convey to the reader and yet Niffenegger does so exquisitely by chronicling each chapter as a date in time, whether past, present or future. The story of Henry and Clare is also handed over to Henry and Clare to tell. The two lovers share the narrative throughout the novel, each lending their own insight to the reader.
A writer and artist, this is Niffenegger’s first novel. Though this is a work of fiction, Niffenegger seems to infuse her own sense of identity and experience into the story when we learn that, like Niffenegger, Clare is also an artist.
Once Clare and Henry meet in present time, their relationship no longer faces Henry’s brief and sporadic visits, but instead, his random, extended absences. Again Clare must wait. The extended absences and instability of Clare and Henry’s relationship are similar to the lack of communication in other couples’ lives. The difference is that Henry and Clare’s situation is entirely out of their hands and it’s not the distance of space that separates them but a separation in time.
Niffenegger is able to convey Clare’s feelings to the reader by connecting her sense of longing and loneliness to the same type of companionship anyone desires in a relationship.
“When I was a child looked forward to seeing Henry. Every visit was an event. Now every absence is a non-event, a subtraction, an adventure I will hear about when my adventurer materializes at my feet, bleeding or whistling, smiling or shaking. Now I am afraid when he is gone.”
The Time Traveler’s Wife does not follow a typical storytelling order of beginning, middle and end. Instead the story is told chronologically through Clare’s life, interrupted occasionally by Henry’s perspective and his flashbacks or flash forwards. Readers could easily become confused as to which point of the story they are at, had Niffenegger not done such a wonderful job at communicating the setting of both place and time.