Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Book Review | The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Buy this book from

London, 1896. Andrew Harrington is young, wealthy and heartbroken. His lover Marie Kelly was murdered by Jack the Ripper and he longs to turn back the clock and save her.

Meanwhile, Claire Haggerty rails against the position of women in Victorian society. Forever being matched with men her family consider suitable, she yearns for a time when she can be free to love whom she chooses.

But hidden in the attic of popular author and noted scientific speculator H.G. Wells is a machine that will change everything.

As their three quests converge, it becomes clear that time is the problem – to escape it, to change it, might offer them the hope they need...


Imagine a tray of cupcakes.

Cupcakes are delicious, you think, so you eat one. Perhaps you earn your icing by nibbling away at the sugar-sweet sponge first, or perhaps you just pop the whole thing into your mouth -- how indeed do you eat yours? It actually matters a great deal. But whatever the method to your particular madness, your suspicions are borne out: the cupcake was indeed delicious. In fact you enjoy your first cupcake so much you take a second; you've hardly eaten anything else today, so in a sense, you've earned it. In short order, if you're anything like me, a second has turned into a third, a fourth into a fifth and finally a sixth...

...and just like that, all the cupcakes are gone! How did that happen?

To make matters worse, now you hate the taste of cupcakes, you've eaten so very many of them. Now the thought of even the sight of one more cupcake makes you nauseous. 

The Map of Time can be like that, if you read it unwisely. As I did, when I realised what a delicious (if not strictly nutritious) treat it was. I couldn't get enough of The Map of Time, until one marathon reading session later, I realised I had had enough. But if sheer greed does not spoil your appetite for it - if you can tame the temptation coiled tight inside you like a sugar high - you will find in award-winning Spanish author Felix J. Palma's first novel to be translated into the English language a thing of some decadence, indulgence, and delight.

The Map of Time is not so much a story in three parts as it three stories, told as one - though each enriches the next to a certain extent, incrementally feeding in to a single greater tale as Palma raises curtain after curtain, by and large the three phases of The Map of Time function in isolation. In the first, beginning in the late 1800s, disillusioned young cad Andrew Harrington falls for the prostitute Marie Kelly - none other - then into a decade of despair after Jack the Ripper claims the last of his victims. Andrew wants nothing more than to be able to turn back the clock that he might somehow save his dearly departed from a fate worse than death... and if the writer H. G. Wells is to be believed, there may be a way.

Meanwhile, Claire Haggerty seems a modern woman out of time in a city of old: in turn-of-the-century London she feels desperately disconnected from the high society that clamours on incorrigibly around her... that is until until she takes passage on Gilliam Murrary's magnificent Time-Travelling Train, a startling expeditionary voyage which deposits Claire and her fellow passengers in the year 2000, when the fate of the human race is decided in a duel between the courageous Captain Shackleton and the evil automaton called Solomon. With the past fast receding and the present dead to her, maybe - just maybe - she will finally find love... in the future! 

In the third of The Map of Time's three parts, Wells himself takes charge of the narrative; moreover, he takes charge of his own narrative at last, as he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which all the evidence points towards an impossible perpetrator: a time-travelling serial killer. But what does this man from the future want? That is besides a trail of bodies that should not be? And what has H. G. Wells of all people got to do with it?

The Map of Time is a delightfully digressionary novel: at once a whimsical send-up of all things Victoriana, an rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure and a lovingly throwback scientific romance, a la the novels of Wells himself. On all fronts, it succeeds to a certain degree, but each, I think, is ever-so-slightly held back by a sense of irreverence; a notion that perhaps there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Palma's prose is knowingly purple, and often prone to disappearing down the rabbit-hole of its own inspired imagination, so The Map of Time tends to drag when it is not in full flow. In those moments where the narrator - an affable, all-seeing sort perfectly pleased at other times to rudely intrude upon affairs - seems content to revel in his own cleverness, or expound upon this or that (occasionally fascinating) aside at disproportionate length, almost as if he were a non-fiction novelist dedicated to the details... in those moments - and there are a fair few such moments - Palma's long-windedness can come off as not a little over-indulgent, and pace-breaking besides.

Then again, Palma has what you might describe as an "undeniable talent for using very long sentences in order to say nothing at all," (p.437) and there is too a great deal to The Map of Time. I would not suggest it is at all understuffed -- and perhaps if Palma had not, by way of his mysterious narrator, stopped so often to take the measure of one flight of fancy or another, his novel would have proved more exhausting that it is. The Map of Time is a tad bloated, assuredly, but it is at no point truly tiresome. Testing, yes, and yet it will repay your meagre investment a hundredfold by the end, if you stick with it, and consume it correctly. In short bursts, then, Felix J. Palma's first novel to make it across the straits between Spain and our English-speaking territories is by turns funny, witty and winning. And - to paraphrase Palma's easily-distracted omniscient narrator - other such pronouncements.

I would also add that as The Map of Time hopscotches merrily from the Great Fire of London to the Autumn of Terror to the ultimate millennial conflict between man and machine, by way of Jack the Ripper, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Timecop - or at a least time-travelling detective inspector out of Scotland Yard (so much of a muchness, really) - Palma is tremendously well serviced by his translator, erstwhile BBC Radio 4 journalist, presenter, author and man of many talents Nick Caistor. He provides Palma with what feels a pitch-perfect translation, capturing the light touch of the original author wonderfully, with none of the awkwardness or the imprecise turn of phrase one must typically tolerate in fiction first written in another language. As the pioneer Gilliam Murray says, "aren't there lies that make life more beautiful?" (p.418) I dare say Nick Caistor's fibs fall ably into that category.

The Map of Time is a terrific feat, in the final summation, full of twists and turns and surprising reversals of fortune, which touches - tangentially - on questions of fate and predestination, of life imitating art and art imitating life in return. It is sometimes very lovely, and though on occasion it can be slow-going, heed my advice: take no more than three chapter-sized measures of The Map of Time a day until your prescription is finished, and I guarantee you'll come away from Felix J. Palma's fabulous farce a healthy, happy specimen of humanity indeed. In fact, since I do not know you will be able to help yourself, shall we say... doctor's orders? 

That goes for the cupcakes too.


The Map of Time
by Felix J. Palma

UK Publication: June 2011, HarperCollins
US Publication: June 2011, Atria Books

Buy this book from

Recommended and Related Reading

No comments:

Post a Comment