John Boyne’s The Thief of Time is an unusual excursion in time travel. Matthieu Zela is 256 years old in 1999, a healthy, attractive middle-aged man who stopped aging at the turn of the nineteenth century. He’s not all angsty about loves lost and an overfull data bank of memories. Matthieu has considerable wealth, amassed in lucky ventures over centuries, an appetite for the new, and undimmed curiosity about what tomorrow will bring. He also has a family curse that traces him down through many generations and shows no signs of abating in this one.
When Matthieu left Paris in 1758 with his younger half-brother Tomas after the murder of his mother and the conviction and execution of his violent stepfather, a family history was set in motion that has repeated itself for nearly three centuries. Tomas died young and his son, another Thomas died young, too, after fathering another son. By 1999, the latest Thomas, a TV soap star, comes to ‘Uncle Matthieu’ for money to fuel a drug habit and Matthieu, for the first time, considers how to break the pattern. The book skips back and forth through Matthieu’s experiences in the French Revolution, the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851 London, the Chaplin days of Hollywood, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, World War II, the McCarthy Era and contemporary forays into television in the late twentieth century. But it returns again and again to the story of his first love, the one relationship that still haunts him with its dazzling promise and crushing betrayal.
The Thief of Time is a very pleasant narrative. All is not always well in Matthieu’s world but all is always well with Matthieu. He has married, loved and lost countless times, shepherded the line of Thomases through young manhood and watched each of them die, watched everyone he has ever known die, actually. His slightly detached view of events is due to the perspective of age—and it is logical that he would mark the passage of time by the brief lives and deaths that he has experienced. He has killed, rescued, abandoned and embraced people. And he remains a clear-eyed optimist throughout everything from guillotines to moon shots—the heart doesn’t change. The stories repeat themselves. What’s important outlasts fad, fanaticism and fashion.
Boyne has invented an immensely interesting and likable character and a first-rate conceit for a story. It was a pleasure to read about someone who has his share of improvident adventures but who has managed to rise above gritty reality and survive with an unruffled sense of self intact. The Thief of Time will let you slip out of your own time for a couple of hours to roam in the memories of an immortal who, thankfully, is neither a zombie nor a vampire.
The Thief of Time John Boyne | St. Martin’s Press 2007