This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore reviews a curious journey.
Jacob has a problem with doors. From time to time, when he walks through one, his life changes in a flash, transporting him across time and space, interrupting the flow of a normal life with the juxtaposition of extraordinary characters and challenging experiences. Just as he gets used to one life, one period in history, just as he builds relationships that are meaningful to him, so is he snatched away by some mysterious hand of… Well, of what? Of fate? Of God?
It’s a really interesting premise for a novel, that of a wanderer through time whose destiny and purpose is uncertain. He encounters somebodies and nobodies, revealing the truth behind some of the most notorious characters in history, and the smaller but no less significant stories of every day individuals. Indeed, in some senses this is a novel of two halves. While it begins as a narrative romp through history, told by Jacob himself who is scratching out his memoirs a candle at a time, it becomes increasingly a reflective existential analysis. What is the point of all this diversity of experience if I can’t change anything about my own life, let alone anyone else’s?
And therein lies the novel’s strength and, for me, its weakness. There is a richness of imagination in Southard’s telling of Jacob’s tale, of the places he sees, the events he witnesses, the characters he meets and falls in love and in hate with, is helped and hindered by. He witnesses some extraordinary periods in history and it would be a remarkable novel if that were what it chose to focus on as story-telling and imaginative odyssey, contrasting the values, people, places, morals, the continuity of human emotion and experience and the differences. And there is some fine, well-constructed story-telling, particularly the sections featuring the Shelleys and Byron, though less so those with Jack the Ripper. There are though some contrivances around Jacob’s increasing desire to explain why he is enduring this journey, including his desire to change the course of one particular event in recent American history which feels a little unnatural in the course of the novel. There are so many events in the history of the nation, and given that we are never really sure of Jacob’s nationality for he is not explicitly, patriotically American but rather a citizen of time and space, why does he choose to focus on that event rather than the Holocaust, for example, as a means of finding out whether his ability to move in time could change the course of history?
There is a love story too at the centre of this, and perhaps it is the most compelling theme in the novel, for it is this aspect of his life which transforms Jacob and changes him from a travelling storyteller into a journeyman of a different kind. Yet perhaps, like Jacob, we too end up with more questions than answers. I found myself wondering why Southard had chosen the events he had for Jacob’s story, why those famous historical people, why I felt dragged in and out of the story, sometimes utterly absorbed and sometimes jerkily aware of the story’s construction in equal measure. This is such an original idea for a novel which is at times really well executed but which at other times left me frustrated and wishing for more fulfilled potential.