It’s apparently the time of year for me to read weird books. Sex strikes, cocaine as a narrator, odd people hanging out in hotels…. But where those books were weird in a “What the heck is going on?” way, this book is weird in a “My brain is broken and I don’t have enough duct tape to fix it right now” sort of way, largely because time travel.
And it’s the most brain-breaking-est kind of time travel, too, where people change history and then remember new memories but also old memories and are still hanging out wherever they were when they changed history regardless of the fact that they CHANGED HISTORY and shouldn’t be there anymore! It’s not Looper levels of ridiculous with severed limbs or anything, but it comes pretty close.
Okay, so, the story. There’s this dude, Henry (the best time traveller name?), and he’s a super percussionist, awesome boyfriend to Val, and best of best friends to Gabe. However, he’s got some mental issues, and at the beginning of the story he is escaping his mother’s house and the imaginary cacophony that surrounds him there to hike across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and get back together with Val, who recently left him for a new life. Halfway across the bridge, he is overcome by the bridge’s music (again, imaginary) and collapses, waking up some time later in a strange place with two strange but eerily familiar people watching over him.
Turns out those dudes are the Henrys 80 and 41 (as they call themselves), and they have figured out how to use the crazy bridge music to time travel (as you do) and they have come to talk to 19 and see if he can’t fix their lives that have not gone quite the way they want them to. Henry 19 is really unclear about how and why they’ve come to him and what he can do to help, and as the story goes along he comes to find that maybe 80 and 41 aren’t any more clear than he is on that score.
When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a more or less straightforward (for a time travel book, anyway) guy-gets-girl book, with Henry chasing the elusive Val across time and space so that they can be together forever in all timelines or whatever. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Staying true to the time-bending conceit, the chapters go back and forth between times and characters, chronicling the three friends mostly in the time of 19 but also going back to high school and forward to 41’s time. We find out how the time travel got started and we see how it is way less useful than anyone ever thinks it is as things go wrong and are corrected and then go wrong again. And then meanwhile to the whole Henrys thing, we see Gabe and Val taking in 19’s disappearance and changing their relationship in a way that threatens to be pretty disastrous to all Henrys involved.
I love the way that Ferguson played with time and narrative, doling out important bits slowly across all timelines until they finally made sense. I also love that Val, who could easily have gone Manic Pixie Dream Girl, got to be a real live human with thoughts and problems of her own. The ending of the book left a little bit to be desired, resolution-wise, which if I’m saying that means it’s seriously a thing, and the very end is just too simple for my tastes, but on the plus side I’ll be thinking about what happened (and what might have happened) for days. This is an amazing first book and I will definitely be looking for more from Ferguson.
Recommendation: For people whose brains are extra-strong and those who love a good time travel yarn.