Wednesday 8 May 2024

Review: The Time-Thief by Patience Agbabi

 I picked up The Time-Thief by Patience Agbabi from the library, having heard her on a BBC podcast talking about Samuel Johnson and his fictional depiction in this book. It’s the second book of four, so some of the difficulties I had with the book may have been covered in the first - I presumed, as a children’s book, I’d pick the world up as I went along.

The books is about leaplings, a tiny subsection of people born on the 29th February who have the ability to jump backwards and forwards in time. The protagonist, Elle is one such person who is also a member of a secret group called Infinity. Their job is to secure the future against unscrupulous leaplings known as the Vicious Circle and headed by the evil Millenia. In this book, an item is stolen from the Museum of Past, Present and Future and her friend is framed. She must go back in time to learn about the item so she can clear her friend’s name. 

Luckily for me, as a Johnson fanatic, the item was an hourglass given by Samuel Johnson to Francis Barber, so Elle meets Johnson, Barber and Anna Williams when they are living at Gough Square in 1752. It’s partly this provenance that makes the hour glass worth so much, as anything Johnson related is worth three times as much in the leapling world.

Elle doesn’t go back until the middle of the book and the first person she meets in Johnson’s household is Anna. She’s incredibly rude and slams the door on them but eventually opens it up and apologies. Elle understands, she’s told that Anna is almost blind and sympathises with how difficult she must find things in a world that ignores her needs. Indeed, when Johnson lived at Bolt Court later in life, neighbours found it irritating how many people asked them for directions to Samuel’s place.

In the acknowledgements at the end, Agbabi thanks Helen Woollison, former Deputy Curator at Dr Johnson’s House. I went to many events run by her and also volunteered in the house under her supervision for a while and she is a knowledgeable and helpful person. It’s clear she helped Agbabi, the description of the garret on page 96 is really good, depicting the long table with teetering piles of books. Describing the books as being a little shabby, rather like Johnson’s clothes and marvelling at all the little slips of paper. She talks with an amanuensis about how Johnson is using quotations, including poetry to define the words and bring them to life. It’s a really nice moment.

I also liked a lot of how Johnson himself is portrayed. Many people, when writing him, choose to make him speak Boswell quotes at all times. This relieves them of the pressure of having to invent something Johnson might say but it is rather jarring to someone who knows that those quotes happened years apart. While there are some nods to some quotes, Agbabi writes her Johnson whole and makes him a figure who is strange and a little alarming at first but ultimately warm and likeable. He might not always sound like the Johnson we know, but at least he’s not just a Bozzy-spouting automaton. 

One of the first things Elle notes about him is the smell of his sweat, then his shabby clothes and constant movements. She wonders if he’s stimming, a concept we were giving a page-length description of earlier, when a person repeats a repetitive action (such as rocking, clapping or blinking) to self-soothe. She’s later informed that Johnson has Tourette’s, that his movements are not a balm to him but an impulse he can’t repress. The person informing her then says, 

  “His supreme intellect and extreme challenge stem from the same source.” It’s an interesting idea, and one I recently read discussed in Robert DeMaria Jr’s The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography. While I am very wary of attributing Johnson’s exceptional qualities to his (probable) neurodivergence, I am interested in how that helped shaped him.

The character of young Francis Barber is also handled well. It’s clear that Agbabi has read Michael Buncdock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, as it reveals his real name, Quarshy, and talks about how he was Colonel Cathcart’s slave in Jamaica but was now in a strange, in-between state, living with Johnson. I liked the little jokes about how he was officially a servant who didn’t do all that much servanting and the chance to see him as a free-spirited young man.

One big element of this book I haven’t much touched on is autism. Maybe it was explained in the first, but the 0.007% of people born on 29th February who can leap in time are all neurodivergent in some way or another. There are six characters with autism, one non-verbal, one character with ADHD and then Johnson with his possible Tourettes. Is it diversity if almost everyone in the book is autistic? The book frequently stops to describe some aspect of autism, sometimes it’s just the narration that stops to explain it but sometimes the whole narrative itself.

At one point, Elle and her fellow autistic leapling, Big Ben, almost fail to jump in time and follow the bad guys because they worry their disguises might be too itchy. Elle herself is a character who shuts down because she is over-stimulated if offered food any other colour than white, but finds the strength to cope with London in 1752. The lovely description of the dictionary garret then goes into a paragraph about how Big Ben is dyslexic and would find the handwritten notes difficult to read - but he doesn’t need to read them. Elle sympathises with Anna Williams’s blindness because, “she must find everything tricky if she’s blind just like I find things challenging because I’m autistic.” It’s about a hundred pages in at this point, we know.

Ultimately, I did not enjoy The Time-Thief because I really didn’t like the writing. Occasionally it flowed but generally it was stiff and awkward. Whenever Elle had been on a little adventure, she’d return to her friends and retell exactly what the reader had already read and then told the reader all the implications of the new information. Everything was stated and re-stated, plainly, baldly and obviously. They talk about an alibi, so then need to have a few sentences explaining, plain, clear and boringly what an alibi is. This is partly why the references to autism became such a hurdle to the telling of the story, because the book wouldn’t let something play out without a flat explanation of it. A character couldn’t stim without the narrator giving a flat description of what stimming is. She couldn’t shut down without explaining what a shut down was and why she was doing it. 

This is an especial problem when the book is supposed to be a fast-paced, time travelling mystery adventure. The book would describe an event happening, then state what had happened and then a character would come up and restate it and another restate it upon that. Then, later on, the character would have to restate that event again in case we’d forgotten before another would state the significance of that restating. 

I’ll end with a quote. Francis Barber, Elle and Big Ben are walking through London in 1752. They see people in sedan chairs and Elle asks if the occupants are disabled. This is Francis’s completely natural reply;

   “No they are not, The sedan chair is a common transportation for hire but take note: those adorned with gold and brocade belong to the monied class who wish to be seen but contribute little to society.”

   Right on with the anti-rich people sentiment, shame about the prose.

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