The Time Traveling Sex Offender: a Review of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffenegger

I turn to look at Clare and just for a moment I forget that she is young, and that this is long ago; I see Clare, my wife, superimposed on the face of this young girl, and I don’t know what to say to this Clare who is old and young and different from other girls…

While my wife was reading The Time Traveler’s Wife, she asked me if I would try to fuck her if I am given the opportunity now to meet her when she was 17 years old. “It depends. Are you hot at 17?” I replied trollishly. So that’s the kind of questions that pop up between couples reading this book together. Anyway, to rewind a bit, I picked up this book because I have always heard effusive praise for it, but even those who love it and recommend it always warned me that there are some aspects of it that are a little may be unsavoury. Now, I do enjoy works that use sci-fi concepts to reframe mundane, everyday things in a new light or to give a different perspective on them, and one of my favourite books that use a similar conceit is Jo Walton’s My Real Children, which is about a woman who lived two parallel lives in two different timelines. I have certainly heard enough comparisons between Ms Walton’s work and Ms Niffenegger’s to pique my curiousity.

The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of Henry DeTamble who has a genetic condition that causes him to time travel uncontrollably at a moment’s notice. He would be dumped naked in the past/future a la the Terminator because anything that’s not part of him, his clothes or even his dental fillings, would be left behind. So he had to learn some useful skills like how to pick locks and pockets, and keep himself fit in order to run away from pursuers since he kept turning up in the buff. There is a lot of dramatic potential to revisiting our own past and future, and Ms Niffenegger explored many facets of Henry’s unique disorder including how he processes loss and grief, his childhood, and his relationships. And the main relationship that the book explores is, of course, the one between Henry and his wife Clare (the Wife), whom he first met when he was 36 years old, and she was 6.

I think one thing this book does really well is showing us how we are really different people in different times of our lives, and I think how a teenage me (or even a version of me in his early twenties) would have really loved this book. I think it did an excellent job in capturing a marriage that’s built on love, and how that love sustains and nourishes a couple regardless of whatever challenges are thrown their way (even unconventional ones pertaining to time travel). There is something very nostalgic about this book, in the way it made me think about my own marriage and those key moments that led up to my decision to spend the rest of my life with my own wife—moments like the first time we met, our first date, our first… and so on. It also speaks to the challenges that anyone in a relationship would face, like the randomness (both mundane and extraordinary) and even the loneliness. There are some scenes in this book that definitely made me understand why this book had resonated with so many people, and its ending really embodied that melancholic sense of longing perfectly.

In fact, I mourned over that ending when a version of it appeared in 2010 in a Sims 3 trailer set to Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now. I am not joking—I actually wept watching it back then. Even though it was just a two-and-a-half-minute video made using computer game graphics with no narration or dialogue, accompanied by a song sung in a silly nonsense language, it was devastating; it still spoke of a lifetime’s worth of loss, tragedy, joy and love. I just did not know back then how its ending resembled The Time Traveler’s Wife‘s. As you can see, I’ve always been very susceptible to maudlin sentimentality.

But I am a parent to a 7-year-old in my 30’s now, and I there are things that bothered me now more than they would when I was younger and less aware. 36-year-old Henry met Clare when she was 6, and was a huge part of her young life. He was a mentor figure for her who tutored her, and probably played a huge part in moulding the woman she eventually became. He revealed to young Clare that they would be married in the future, and as a result, Clare did not have normal romantic relationships growing up, and saved herself largely for Henry. And whenever Henry visited teen Clare, they would touch and kiss in less-than-chaste ways, and she would fondle him in unmentionable places. At one point when she was 16, an adult Henry actually held her down and almost had his way with her before he thought better of it. I mean, I don’t blame the child, because she was a child, but Henry certainly ought to have been the adult here.

“And you jumped me and pinned me, and for about thirty seconds we both thought ‘This is it.’ I mean, it wasn’t like you would’ve been raping me, because I was absolutely asking for it. But you got this look on your face, and you said ‘No,’ and you got up and walked away. You walked right through the Meadow into the trees and I didn’t see you again for three weeks.”

And I don’t think the creepiness was entirely unintended since the author referenced Lolita twice in this book, and the second time was when 41-years-old Henry deflowered Clare at 18 as a birthday present. I suppose Ms Niffenegger chose 18 because even though 16 is the age of consent in Michigan (where this took place), 18 is the safer cutoff when one of the parties involved is an “authority figure”. Henry himself thought of this moment as “Humbert Humbertish”, to quote the book. I think it is suppose to be romantic, and it’s presented as the most beautiful and significant sexual encounter Clare had in the book—but it was impossible for me to feel this way knowing the spectre of grooming looming over it. Personally, I cannot understand why Henry needed to be involved in Clare’s life from so young an age at all. The book could have shifted Clare’s first encounter with Henry to when she’s 18 and the main story would arguably still work.

I think some readers excuse Henry’s behaviour to a large part because from his perspective, it had already happened and he is just going through the motions. That is a perfectly valid reading, I think, but because I have a very cynical brain, I then ask: If this stable time loop is about Henry raping an underage Clare, would it still excuse his behaviour? Even though it had already happened from his perspective? And my answer is a hard no. It would just be a stable time loop of a rape. So if I can’t excuse that behaviour, I don’t think I can excuse the grooming either.

On a side note, there are probably fanfics of The Time Traveler’s Wife out there that depict Henry boinking an underage Clare, but I won’t try to confirm my suspicions because I don’t want to taint my search history forever. I am also sure there must be fanfics that portray two separate Henrys double-teaming Clare. Or even an orgy of Henrys. Again, the book definitely had scenes that suggested it, particularly the one in which Henry fucks himself, and in another when Henry fucks Clare with another Henry sleeping nearby. I mean, it’s speculative fiction, so you can’t blame me for speculatin’.

And these days, I have certainly grown more cognizant of offensive stereotypes in fiction and media depictions. Clare actually came from a wealthy white family living in a house that literally had books written about it, and they employ black servants. One of them is a full-on “mammy” character who speaks in a distinctive black vernacular different from all other characters and would refer to her lady employer (Clare’s mother) as “Miz Lucille”. Now that we are on the subject of race, I must say that had Henry been a black man, he would have had his naked black ass gunned down long ago considering his repeated run-ins with the law, but Henry is privileged enough to be able to find humour in it,

The upside of this police car is: it’s warm and I’m not in Chicago. Chicago’s Finest hate me because I keep disappearing while I’m in custody, and they can’t figure it out. Also I refuse to talk to them, so they still don’t know who I am, or where I live. The day they find out, I’m toast because there are several outstanding warrants for my arrest: breaking and entering, shoplifting, resisting arrest, breaking arrest, trespassing, indecent exposure, robbery, und so weiter.

Now, one of the most interesting things about Clare and Henry’s relationship is that both of them met the other for the first time in different instances. When 6-year-old Clare first met Henry, the Henry she met was already married to her for years. When 28-year-old Henry met Clare for the first time, Clare had lived almost all of her life knowing Henry in her childhood. The two Henrys are very different people, with the pre-Clare Henry being a womanising alcoholic with a reputation for hurting the women he dates. The book just had Henry turn over new leaf overnight after Clare came into the picture, perpetuating this romanticised idea that true love can change a person. Even so, I am not opposed to character development and the transformative power of love, and I think the book missed a chance in depicting Henry’s behaviour and personality as a legitimate test for Clare (and it would probably feed the Gomez subplot a lot better too). Clare was also taking on faith that Henry’s time travel only create stable time loops, impotent to affect meaningful changes; it would have been interesting to see that belief being tested more vigorously, perhaps by making her doubt that she even want to marry this Henry that’s so different from the one she grew up with. I would also prefer to see Henry’s disorder affecting his professional life to a greater extent—I mean, what employer would keep someone on staff for decades when he would disappear for hours or even days at a time without notice, and would occasionally be found nude at his workplace (a public library).

Another criticism that comes to mind is how a lot of problems Clare and Henry face as a couple are basically solved with dei ex machina. There is always a Henry from the past or future to save the day.

As a medical doctor, I’ll just say that none of the science described in this book is even remotely plausible. A doctor in the book hypothesised that clock genes and the suprachiasmatic nucleus which are involved with the circadian rhythm of our bodies might be responsible for Henry’s condition, but that’s the same level of reasoning as saying guinea pigs might be delicious because their name has the word pig in it. I do like how Henry’s time travel is essentially depicted as an epileptic disorder; It would come on like a seizure, triggered by strong emotions or TV, and he would experience an aura before slipping forward or backward in time. And for obvious reasons, similar to epileptic patients, Henry doesn’t drive. He also doesn’t travel far because, what if he disappears from a plane and reappears midair, after the plane had passed? I like how Ms Niffenegger really thought thoroughly about what Henry’s condition would mean to a person, and even though it came with some perks, there are huge downsides to it as well.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, in spite of my misgivings, is a compelling piece of fiction. It raised a lot of thoughts and questions in my head about the anatomy of a love relationship and marriage by jumbling its pieces all around using a science fiction trope. There are moments that made me laugh, and many that made me a little teary too. It’s a shame that I essentially had to shout down the part of my brain that screams “CHILD GROOMING, CHILD GROOMING” in order to enjoy this book. I hear that the author had been working on a sequel titled The Time Traveler’s Husband (or The Other Husband), and it’s a woman who somehow managed to be married to two people at the same time. Polygamy is less objectionable than child grooming, I guess?

Ratings: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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