Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A love letter in a forgotten books leads a curious collector to a love story between two WW2 soldiers scattered through time.
Intriguing, tell me more. A bookseller discovers a love letter in the leaves of a book of poetry called 'Time Was' that slowly brings to light two lovers, Tom and Ben, who meet in World War II while one works in the science division, and the other works as an intelligence officer, and - through mysterious means - have found themselves separated throughout time.
Why this, why now? This was announced some time ago by its publishers Tor, and made a bit of a ripple through readers of queer sf, and I've been eagerly awaiting it since then.
What genre would you say it is? This is really possibly the most notable thing that should be addressed here. Tor pitched this as a queer love story across time - think perhaps a gay Time Traveller's Wife with a dash of war spirit. Quite a number of early reviewers on Goodreads seem to have have been quite attached to that, and as a result.. they're a bit disappointed. The book isn't really that at all: the love story is approached obliquely, fleetingly, pieced together by Emmett, the book dealer protagonist who stumbles on the mystery. And that's what this book is: a historical mystery, a book about the mechanics by which the story of a love affair is unearthed from history and pieced together, and it doesn't do this in a way that is either hand-holding or linear, so I can understand some of the negative goodreads reviews. Thing is - none of that expectation is the author's fault, and the flaw of any good review is reviewing the book you thought it would be. So take it as it is: a curious mystery that slowly reveals itself to have a poignant afterglow.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? I read it all in one go, and yes, it absolutely did. The writing is really quite beautiful - spare and understated in some moments, and packed with lush imagery in others; McDonald has an ability to conjure the texture of a setting in astonishingly vivid ways, from the tattered melting pot of the closed bookstore in Clapham that opens the story to the sickening horrors of Nanking. It packs in quite a number of side characters, vividly drawn in a short space of time, and imbues a sense of joy into the brief fragments of time in which the lovers Tom and Ben can be together. The beats of the mystery themselves are familiar, but McDonald gives them a fresh feeling with the elegance and immersiveness of his prose.
The book is steeped in research, though never in such a way to be obtrusive. The history of Shingle Street, I discovered with some internet-black-hole searching afterwards, is bizarre, and is expertly drawn into this story for McDonald's own purposes, but it's not only this central element - there is a panoply of small details enriching the story, from the facts of war down to references that made a local to Manchester such as I smile knowingly.
What surprises did it hold – if any? Having settled into the story as a mystery, rather than a love story across boundaries, I found myself quite disarmed by the poignance of the ending as it pulls together various disparate threads to beautiful, and rather sad, effect.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? It is a small moment amongst many perhaps more grandiose or haunting, but the scene that stuck in the memory is between the lovers, operating the lighting of a pantomime staged by the regiment. Shielded by the glare of the light, the pair engage in some surreptitious naughtiness, and this small moment is nervous, exciting, and - to a writer and reader bored of seeing queer narratives either absurdly over-sexed or neutered of sexuality at all - perfectly evoked.
Give me a quote: Vapor trails in the sky, the nightly flicker of anti-aircraft fire, rumors of barges missing along the coast of Holland, Kriegsmarine minesweepers probing the Channel's defenses. This is the invasion coast.
I like it better empty. Emptied. When I came here as a boy, when I wandered and met and learned from E.L., I saw their faces pressed to these same windows, frowning out. Who was on their land, in their view, on their horizon. Suspicious, possessive people. Sandings people. A landscape of grey resentments and long grudges. Gone now. Moved out. Fuck them. This is mine now.