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Published by Harper Perennial on May 2nd 2017
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Perfect for fans of Jane Austen, this engrossing debut novel offers an unusual twist on the legacy of one of the world's most celebrated and beloved authors: two researchers from the future are sent back in time to meet Jane and recover a suspected unpublished novel.
London, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem, but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters—a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back,” their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady nineteenth-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.
It’s a very big butterfly, and it is impossible to keep it from flapping its wings for an entire year.
The problem with time travel is that it is incredibly difficult to spend any time at all in the past and not change something – possibly even something significant. But that’s the dilemma that faces researchers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane. Their job, which they have chosen to accept, is to go back to the England of 1815 and quite seriously meddle with the life of Jane Austen – but leave no trace of their meddling.
This is truly an impossible mission. And so it proves. But the story isn’t in what Rachel and Liam change about Jane Austen, it’s what changes about themselves in the process.
Time travel always involves a bit of handwavium. In this case, it’s a scientific process that sends them back to a specific place and time, armed with the knowledge (and the money) that it is hoped are necessary to inveigle their way into Jane Austen’s circle, her life, and wherever she stashed her unpublished manuscript. Oh, and by the way, discover what mysterious ailment killed her.
That last bit is Rachel’s job. In her own time (possibly the late 21st or early 22nd century), Rachel is a doctor. But in 1815, all she can be is Liam’s spinster sister, while he pretends to be the doctor. Lucky for both of them if not for Jane, medicine was not all that far advanced. As a well educated man, with a little bit of coaching from Rachel, Liam can fake it. And he does. While Liam is faking being a well-to-do doctor and man about town, Rachel has the much harder task of pretending to be a woman of the early 19th century, shy, retiring, unambitious and unintelligent. She is not very good at it, and wonders just how smart women managed not to go completely insane.
In spite of many, many roadblocks, both expected and otherwise, Rachel and Liam do manage to accomplish their task. Mostly. Only to discover that it wasn’t quite what they thought it was. And now that they are back in their own time, neither are they.
Escape Rating A-: For anyone who enjoys time travel stories, this one is an absolute treat. It will also remind some readers of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a bit of that sense of madcap adventure, but not too much, as well as the difficulty of determining what about the past can be meddled with and what can’t. At the same time, the stakes don’t feel too high, or the situation too dire, as it was in Willis’ Doomsday Book.
In some ways, the task before Rachel and Liam seems like a fool’s errand, or an absolutely impossibly unresolvable conflict. To get close enough to the somewhat reclusive Jane Austen to have access to a document she kept well-hidden without affecting the lives of anyone around her is improbable from the outset. It seems impossible to get that close and not change something, and also not to leave evidence of themselves somewhere in the Austen family correspondence.
It is also beyond imagining to live an entire year of one’s life in the circumstances that Rachel and Liam insert themselves into without their coming out of it changed, whether the world they left behind (ahead?) changes or not. And so it proves. And that’s a big part of what I can’t stop thinking about.
The world is what the world is because of what has happened before we came into it. While we may discover documentation of history that we did not previously know, the moving finger has already writ that history, and the effects of whatever happened have already been built into our world. If there are effects of discovering the formerly hidden information (the recent discovery of Richard III’s body comes to mind) that discovery doesn’t change anything written or believed or assumed about Richard III in the past. Shakespeare still used him as the epitome of evil. Future biographies will be affected, but past ones won’t re-write themselves.
That’s not the case in Rachel and Liam’s world. When the past changes, everything between then and their now re-writes itself. In that world, history is a shared delusion, just like paper money. It is so because we all believe it is so, and not because the piece of paper has an intrinsic value. In their world, history changes and everything adapts around it. That particular aspect reminds me more of The Eyre Affair than time-travel. Change the source and everything that derives from the source shifts to match – no matter how disruptive those shifts might be.
There’s also an attitude that it is possible to change the past and know, more or less, what the effects will be. I end up wondering about that. While there are some cases in their history that seem like there’s nowhere to go but up, how can one be certain? One of the short stories in John Scalzi’s Miniatures deals with this theme, as does Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman, a book I read long ago and have never been able to forget.
One part of the story that seems all-too-real and heartbreaking concerns the relationship between Rachel and Liam and the changes wrought both to themselves and to their past by their actions in 1815. We are the sum total of our experiences. The child, and everything that happens to that child, makes the man, or the woman. But they go back in time and experience a year together that does not happen for anyone else. They are both forced to play a part, and of necessity become some of that part in order to survive. At the same time, they are aware, and they are the only people aware, of the nature and the sheer magnitude of the lies that they are living.
But when they come back, the world they return to is not the same. They may be the sum total of their experiences, but the world they return to produced different versions of them than the ones they actually are. How does a person reconcile that? Is it better to remember, or is it better to conform and be, as a consequence, comfortable? And how does one decide which reality to accept, and which to reject?
This is the question that continues to haunt me, long after I closed the final page.