There’s something wrong with Henry. The 19-year-old musician had always been eccentric, but lately things have gotten worse. And when Henry goes missing shortly after his girlfriend Val breaks up with him, his childhood friend and roommate Gabe doesn’t know what to do. Henry, meanwhile, is found lying on the George Washington Bridge by his future self (actually, selves).
Much like The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Mark Andrew Ferguson’s debut novel takes the concept of time travel and places in today’s real world. The time-traveling Henrys in both novels have a power that just happens to them, at least initially. Ferguson’s Henry eventually learns how to take some control of his power, and he uses that ability to do what every time traveler knows to never do—change his own life.
In alternating chapters, the novel follows Henry (at different ages) and his friend Gabe as they figure out how to deal with their new reality (or realities). Gabe’s chapters focus on his experiences at age 19, while Henry’s chapters follow Henry as he moves through time at ages 19, 41, and 80, sometimes meeting a younger self and sometimes on his own. The predictably alternating pattern helps keep the novel from getting too confusing as new timelines emerge. Every time a younger Henry makes a new decision, the older Henrys develop new memories.
The implications of all this time travel only gradually become clear, as relationships change and people are wiped out of existence, and Henry’s agenda alters with every change. Although it took me a while to catch on to what was happening, once I fell into the pattern, I was only rarely confused. There’s one timeline toward the end that I didn’t think was fully developed, and I don’t know how Henry’s actions led to that particular outcome. But the key events, including the final decisive one, are clearly laid out.
Ferguson ties Henry’s time travel in with his musical ability, with his relationship to music somehow making him mentally unstable and chronologically so. This motif allowed for some beautiful images of Henry, especially that of Henry happily “playing” the bridge, glorying in the sounds he hears and makes and later trying to recapture that magic in his studio. This mysterious music also becomes significant to Gabe, but in a different way. I was intrigued by this element of the story, but it wasn’t fully fleshed out. In a way, I suppose that’s fine. This (again like The Time Traveler’s Wife) is not the kind of book where the mechanics of time travel is important. Still, the musical aspects of the time travel didn’t seem to serve much purpose, beyond linking Gabe to it later in the book.
The plot, as well developed and interesting as it is, suffers a bit from the blandness of the characters. They’re vehicles for the clever story, mostly. Val’s place in the story as the object of both Henry and Gabe’s affection was particularly troubling. Henry is particular turns Val into an object. At one point, Gabe tells Henry that “You can’t give her to anyone.” To which Henry responds, “She was mine to give.” You see the problem?
Everything Henry does has a massive effect on the course of Val’s life, and he never reveals himself to her in the way he does to Gabe. In fact, the point where he does show himself is one in which Val is unable to understand what is happening. Although Val is shown as making her own decisions in that moment, her capacity to make those decisions is so impaired and Henry holds back so much information, that I simply cannot accept his actions as anything other than grievously wrong. Gabe, too, makes mistakes in his dealings with Val, but he does not treat her like a possession, nor does he manipulate her into his bed.
I find myself wondering if Ferguson meant to make Val’s lack of agency into a theme, to stack the deck in Gabe’s favor by making Henry less willing to give Val her own fully informed choices. I hope he was aware of what Henry’s actions meant to Val, but I’m not sure that it matters. The idea is very much there, and although the narrative is not outright condemnatory of Henry’s actions, it also doesn’t endorse them. We’re given room to be upset by what Henry does, even as we sympathize with his pain at all he has lost. That’s enough to keep me from being mad at this book.
I received an unsolicited copy of this book from Little, Brown for review consideration.