Monday, 20 November 2006

Tanglewreck, Jeanette Winterson, 2006

Press Book Review
Tanglewreck Jeanette Winterson, Bloomsbury, 2006, 414 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99
ISBN 0 7475 8355 2
[NZ agents: Allen & Unwin]

Time Tornadoes

A very tall policeman with a double-headed dog was walking angrily towards them. Above them, in the sky, were three moons. ‘I don’t think we’re in London any more,’ said Silver.”

Both children and adults laugh at this passage, a sure sign that a talented writer has been at work. Jeanette Winterson has created a Gothic fantasy for young adults about the disruption of time itself. The novel begins with children in a London bus looking out at an Egyptian Pharaoh’s procession moving up the Thames. The world has been struck by the first of many time tornadoes, rifts in the structure of time which bring different eras together and sweep people away into the future.

Silver River, a young orphan, at first seems to be isolated from this chaos. She is living with her selfish aunt-housekeeper, Mrs Rokaby in a vast Elizabethan mansion called Tanglewreck. Then the sinister time-traveller, Abel Darkwater, arrives and Silver learns that her family have long been guardians of the Timekeeper, a clock with special powers. As Darkwater says, “If I had it, we could thread our way, fine as a needle, back through the fabric of Time, and what has happened need not happen.” Also seeking the Timekeeper is Regalia Mason, the cold and beautiful Chief Executive of the multi-national Quanta, which has gained control of Earth’s water, oil and seas. Now Regalia plans to control time itself, for time can literally be money.

Silver is a spirited girl who soon escapes from Rokaby and Darkwater, with the help of the Throwbacks, a group of long-lived mutants who have taken refuge in a network of tunnels under London. Gabriel, a former servant of John Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer, also knows the secret of the Timekeeper but he and Silver are soon hurled through time to the Einstein Line. This is the place where time is steady and people grow no older. “There is no time here…not future, not past, just the present.” Oddly the Einstein Line is also the place the Popes go to when they die. “The last Pope died in 2333, but we’ve got a full set. Three of them are women.”
Many interesting aspects of time are introduced and bright readers will be inspired to follow up references to Harrison’s chronometers, Gregory XIII’s revision of the calendar, Bedlam and Greenwich. The dialogue is often witty and always interesting. There are also some great jokes, like Goliath’s pet mammoth, or the flock of menacing rabbits marshalled by Mrs Rokabye. Silver even finds Schrödinger’s cat in a box.

The characters are also lively but sometimes seem less than original. Mrs Rokabye “who only ever quoted the nastier bits of the Bible” has all the narrow, self-satisfied rigidity of Mrs Winterson in the writer’s own classic Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, while Regalia owes some of her icy menace to Mrs Coulter in Philip Pullmans’ His dark Materials series.

Last month [i.e. July 2006] on her website ( Winterson told how she wrote this book as a birthday gift for her god-daughters Eleanor (10) and Clara (7), incorporating some of their ideas. Perhaps this explains some of the minor lapses in continuity and logic which mar the story. After carefully introducing many scientific concepts, complete with a brief appearance of Stephen Hawking, it seems rather self-defeating to have Gabriel escape from a black hole by achieving the “speed of love” through the combined mental efforts of his fellow Throwbacks.

Despite these minor flaws, Winterson is such a compelling story teller that Tanglewreck is an irresistible adventure and a reminder that every moment matters.

Trevor Agnew

First published by The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, in August 2006.

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