Of the book David Charirandy says, 'An Ocean of Minutes offers that rare combination of a provocative speculative setting, masterfully elegant writing, and a story that moves and haunts long after the last page. Thea Lim is an enormously talented writer.'
Publishers Weekly says, 'Lim's enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative.'
And I say.......
I was temporarily thrown by this novel for in most of my dystopian fiction adventures there seems to be a futuristic approach. It’s not always a far distant future to be fair, maybe just a decade or two, but in Thea Lim’s novel of time travel the travelling is done from one ‘present’ past to another ‘future’ past. I found that initially unsettling. Perhaps that’s because of my age! But as unsettling as it was it was also an intriguing and original premise begging me to read on.
Polly and Frank are a couple living in 1980, a dystopian 1980, when a pandemic hits the country. Frank succumbs to the virus and the only way they can see to save him and their relationship is for Polly to time travel. It sounds far fetched? Yes, but when you’re immersed in the novel it doesn’t seem so. The deal is that if Polly agrees to work for a company and travel into a 1993 future they will fund the life saving treatment Frank needs in his 1980’s present. The catch is she can only travel forwards in time but not backwards.They vow to try and find each other in twelve years time.
This is an ambitious and complex novel. It’s definitely a story that would benefit from further readings which I believe suggests a book of depth ad integrity. The writing is lyrical in places, yet informative in others and flows as naturally as the passing of the time it describes. The characters are well drawn and believable. Even the ‘B’ characters are developed rather than just functional. You find yourself wanting to know what happens to them as well as the main protagonists.
The protocols and bureaucracy of the time travel company TimeRaiser offeres an almost Kafka like narrative as Polly tries to navigate her way through the rules and regulations. The ‘future’ Polly finds herself in gives rise to considerations about class structure but the novel encourages us to consider love and time, the relationship between them, about memory and the preservation of memories and their place within time. Is time timeless?
I found the ending unbelievably poignant and sad yet inevitable for,- *cliche alert* - ‘time waits for no man’ and that curious desire many of us have to cling on to a particularly beautiful past and make it an enduring present is as far from our reach as, say, time travel!!
The story also much to say about grief and loss and how individuals deal with it. How that resonates with the reader may depend on experience. It certainly struck a chord with me and enhanced my appreciation of the book.
It’s a book that will stay in your head long after you close it. It provokes so many thoughts and considerations. My thanks to Ana McLaughlin at Quercus Books via Bookbridgr for the opportunity to read this elegant and emotional story.
Now let's meet Thea.......
Thea Lim’s writing has been published by the Southampton Review, The Guardian, Salon and others, and she has received multiple awards and fellowships for her work, including artists’ grants from the Canada Council for the Arts. She holds an MFA from the University of Houston and she previously served as nonfiction editor at Gulf Coast.
Thea grew up in Singapore and lives in Toronto with her family.
Having read the book and finding myself absorbed and captivated by the premise I had some questions for Thea.
I've just finished your wonderful novel An Ocean of Minutes. I'm going to jump right in and ask you, do you think time travel will be possible one day?
Maybe, but I hope not; I don’t think it’s a healthy technology for humanity to possess! Just the thought of Twitter introducing an “edit” feature gives me pause.
I ask that first because I wondered whether that was the starting point for the story? Was it your intention to write a book about time travel or did the idea present itself because of the circumstances, i.e. the pandemic and a solution for Polly and Frank and their love story and maybe the effects of time on a relationship?
Believe it or not, neither time travel, nor the pandemic, nor the love story was my starting point. My ideas for stories usually start with an emotional situation i.e. a set of feelings, rather than a plot or setting. (Note: I would not recommend this, it makes things tricky!) I was thinking about grief: how ubiquitous and chronic it is, despite how little we speak of it. I wanted to write a novel about grief, but to do so I had to make grief exciting (also tricky). I started thinking about how people in mourning are stuck in time – they can’t move forward. I decided to actually strand someone in time, and suddenly, I was writing a time travel novel.
I found your writing engrossing. There were times I found it was almost Kafkaesque particularly where poor Polly tried to find her way though the bureaucracy of TimeRaiser. Was the creation of this company and their protocols difficult to plot? Did you use any contemporary company research to assist you?
My polestar in the creation of TimeRaiser was that I did not want to write a scheming, malicious evil empire. I was more interested in how much human suffering is caused by incompetence, thoughtlessness, and neglect; harm by absence instead of design. So that gave me a clear schematic to follow. I also read many accounts of migrant work, and took details from places like China’s FoxConn Factories, Canada’s tomato farms, and Dubai’s construction sites. Some aspects – like having to pay for your own tools – were taken from my own experiences of work, which I’m extremely fortunate to say were never near as bad as the Journeymen’s.
Polly and Frank are the pivotal characters and I thought they were very well observed. I think most people could find something of themselves in them which draws the reader in. Some writers claim that the creation of characters is sometimes taken out of their hands and the characters end up creating themselves almost and the writer’s job is to simply describe them. Was this the case with Polly and Frank?
To an extent! I used the plot to decide who they were. For example, I had to ask myself what kind of person would do what Polly did? That line of questioning lead me to write her as someone both optimistic and determined, practical and romantic. The characters Norberto, Baird and Cookie were straightforward to write once it occurred to me to use them as mirrors for Polly – some aspect of their lives reflected back a version of Polly’s struggle. Frank was actually the hardest to write. Polly is so close-mouthed, and the story is told through her point of view, so I couldn’t always see Frank clearly. It was not until my editors pushed me to add more flashback chapters (the chapter where Frank meets Chad, and the chapter where Frank’s mother throws an anniversary party) that he solidified.
An Ocean of Minutes is an ambitious work conceptually. I found it fascinating that Polly time travelled to a year that was her future but is already in our past. Was there ever an inclination to set the story in a future we've not experienced yet? Or is the real point that the numbers don't mean anything? It's what actually happens in time, past, present and future, that really counts?
What a beautiful question! I’ve talked elsewhere about the fact that I set it in the past because I wanted to suggest to readers that the treatment of the Journeymen is something that’s already happening, rather than something that’s going to happen. But I love the idea that the past setting somehow suggests that dates don’t matter as much as our experiences. Polly’s physical quest is to find Frank, but her metaphysical quest is to “return to the present,” in that her obsession with finding her lost lover has her living in the past.
The novel is also a consummate love story. The question that springs to my mind is how many of us would do what Polly did for someone she loved? The assurances of TimeRaiser seemed so nebulous and uncertain. I'm going to ask it! Would you do what Polly did?!
When I was 23, maybe! Now I have a two-year-old and I’d have to think twice about taking her into an unknown future to save my spouse. It’s so distressing that every day, people in our world have to make such choices – not to travel into the future (ha) but to leave their spouses and children or split their families, in search of safety.
I found the ideas about time resonated quite forcefully with me. I'm a bit like Frank and hang on to artefacts that mark an event, ticket stubs etc. For me it's an attempt to hang on to something, a moment in time I know I can never have again. I want a trophy lest I forget! I've always seen time and memory as close relations. And that seemed ever more pertinent especially towards the conclusion of the book. I found that heartbreaking to read in some respects and I wondered if it was difficult to write, emotionally?
The truth is that writing was perhaps a way of disassociating from such emotions, just as you hear stories of people in conflict zones filming terrible scenes, in order to manage what’s around them. Creating an artifact out of what haunts us is a means to quarantine it. Does this mean I offloaded my heartbreak onto the reader? Uh oh.
I found the ending unbelievably sad but inevitable. To go anywhere else might have compromised the integrity of the story. But was there ever a temptation to go for the fairy tale happy ending?
No, not at all. (What a jerk!) That was the one thing I knew from the start. I wanted to (spoiler!) write about how one might survive the loss of a love: what coping mechanisms do we use?; how might they be necessary yet counterproductive?; how do people go on every day, when everyone has lost someone they love? Earlier versions were actually about a mother and child, but because I knew I wanted to talk about the health of letting go, that seemed a little heartless in the context of losing a child.
How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?
I used to always write in the morning, before I checked my phone or email, and only ever in my home office. But now I have a toddler (and had to turn my office into a nursery) so I’ve had to become a lot more flexible!
I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?
I’m not sure about the first book, but rereading Othello as an adult I was so moved by what I didn’t notice as a teen: how tragically trapped Othello was by his desire to be seen (a very modern idea!), how they exploited his desire to control his own story.
And finally what can we expect in the future from you? Do you have another novel in the pipeline?
I’ve been working on something about a grandmother who runs an unlicensed cab company (maybe set in a Neuromancer-like sprawl city), but I’m superstitious and can’t say more!
My thanks to Thea for her detailed and excellent answers. I found myself thinking of a host more questions!
I am but one stop upon this blog tour. Do take some time and check out what the other excellent bloggers have to say about this enthralling story.