There’s an irony to the Amazon reviews of this elegant, but unpretentious examination of time present, past, and future, which the author reveals through the most “normal” of families and the way they live their lives. A large number of reviewers have downgraded this book because it has “no plot,” “nothing happens,” there’s “not much point,” the language is “pedestrian,” and the story is too “domestic.” And yet those who like (and in some cases, even love) the book (on Amazon as well as in the professional press), praise this novel for some of these same qualities: its quiet, contemplative tone; the main character’s desire to preserve the best, most meaningful moments from his life while also wondering if he is remembering “correctly”; his examination of what people did and said in the past and how that affects his present views of them and the past; and his constant daydreaming. He is an ordinary man with an ordinary family – all of whom (with one obvious exception) are a bit more thoughtful and more sensitive than is common in most novels – or in most families - people honest and open with their feelings, even though they are leading otherwise unremarkable lives. Though I am sad for the readers who will forget this book, that fact, ironically, is also part of the author’s point. We all remember from the present what we choose to remember, not necessarily what is “real,” and that, in turn, helps us to shape our futures.
For me, this was a rare and engaging novel with “voices” that speak directly from the characters’ hearts, and there is little sense that an author is present, pulling the strings and determining outcomes. It is 2006, and Ireland’s economy, the Celtic Tiger, is at its peak. Main character Fintan Terrence Buckley, age forty-seven, works as a legal advisor at an import/export firm in Dublin. Happily married for twenty-four years, he has a doting wife, one son out of college, one son just starting, and a seven-year-old daughter. Fintan, however, has been having some recent episodes in which words and language become strange to him as he stares at objects and people, and on one occasion, “It was as if the air had thinned out and the man [in front of him] was like something that had dropped out of the sky…” He is confused by his own reality and fascinated by the antique photographs at the restaurant where he has met this person. One photo from the past shows a terrible train accident at Harcourt Street Station in 1900, in which a locomotive slammed right through the wall and out the other side, incredibly without killing anyone. He also notices pictures of streets he has walked, past buildings he recognizes, though the people in the photographs are long dead. He ponders – in fact, questions – the reality of these scenes, just as he wonders about the reality of the man in front of him.
As the point of view changes from Fintan to members of his family, the reader comes to know Fintan’s mother Joan, with whom few get along. Her memories of time are different, affecting her ability to relate to families in general and to her husband, a loving man whom she had married to escape her parents. Now a widow, she is enjoying her present, and thinks little about the past: “There are worse things to be than a widow in your seventies.” Her unmarried daughter Martina, having returned from working in London after several years, has chosen not to live with her mother, but with her Aunt Beth. Martina has secrets which have had a profound impact on her life. When Fintan later visits Martina and Beth, he finds that little has changed in Beth’s house: “There is still that same air of the past that Fintan remembers from his first visits here, of the quality of time itself seeming different in these rooms.” Beth is still celebrating her twenty-year marriage, when she was in her fifties, to a man she adored, and though he has died, he is still very much alive to Beth in their house.
When Fintan asks Martina about some old family photographs, the themes of time and reality develop further. Who is the young woman from a hundred years ago in one of the sepia photos who looks so much like Martina? Who are the people in these family photographs? Are we just passing through our lives and the places we see, and if so, what does the existence of a “real” photograph do to our perceptions? Or does the photograph illustrate reality at a particular moment of time, a kind of reality which we can never really know by looking backward from another time? Then again, does our present grow out of a kind of spooling from a larger past, affecting not just us but other people, too? With Fintan’s sudden interest in color photography, the question of reality and time and our perceptions of both develop still further. He is particularly intrigued with the early use of three separate black and white photographs taken with three separate filters which, when reprinted through three similar filters become one single, colored photograph, a new reality.
As the novel reveals secrets and relationships from both the distant past and the present, the author herself becomes a character, near the conclusion of the novel, narrating the future of these characters whom we have come to know so well and telling us what happens to them as their realities change. With the banking crisis in Ireland and subsequent bankruptcy, families find they have no security, and students graduate and cannot find jobs, often leaving the country and their families to find work, examples the author gives to show how little control we all have regarding our futures, no matter how much we may study and try to learn from the past. “We all of us look towards a personal future that is imaginary…To engage too much with the future, in all its fragility and uncertainty, can make us feel dizzy with unease. Let us think, then, of the past, so that we may speak of real things that have actually happened; conscious always that the past, like the future, also shimmers behind the veil of imagination.”
Philosophical, accessible, filled with characters the reader comes to know intimately and to care about, lively in its questioning of reality, thoughtful in its examination of the past, and beautifully written in language which is remarkably simple, considering the themes, Time Present and Time Past is a novel which I found completely engaging, one which manages to be charming in its meditations about life without ever being pedantic.