The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
Time travel is the one of the trickiest of genres to pull off. The complexities of the possible physics and paradoxes are such that the author, by writing their way out of trouble by setting up the laws early, means they have usually painted themselves into a corner later on. One of my favourite books about time travel is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It is one of those books with firm rules and as such, the moment the characters travel, the world they knew is gone, by the simple act of them appearing in the past. But the effect that the realisation of time travel has on those is usually confined to a plot point. If time travel is a norm in your world, what effect would that have on you? What if you could be visited by your future self? A younger self? What if you did the visiting? How would you cope knowing the day you die?
It is 1967 and we are introduced to four women who have been working away in some seclusion in Cumbria on a secret project. They are very different women, from different backgrounds and outlooks. Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara all bring different elements to the project and at Christmas 1967, they hold hands, step into their machine and meet themselves in the future. Their future selves are waiting for them, they know they are coming and they celebrate together. When they return, they stand before the cameras with Roger, their test rabbit and announce to the world that time travel is now a reality. Margaret controls proceedings, careful measured, precise. Until, that is, Barbara suffers a breakdown, on camera before the world. At the height of their success, the group is fractured and Barbara immediately shunned, so that no concerns about the effect time travel has upon the travellers and be levelled against them.
50 years later, Ruby knows that her Granny Bee was the time traveller who went mad. Her relationship with her Granny is very close and she is one of the few that talks about time travel with her. 51 years on from that first journey, Odette starts her first day as volunteer at the Toy Museum. As she opens up the museum, she notices all is not well and she wanders into the basement. She finds a door that is locked from the inside with a liquid seeping from behind the door. Odette forces the door to find an old woman, slumped against the wall, shot to death. There is no gun, only what is left of the old woman. Odette is stunned, in shock and when she leaves, once the police have finished with her, she is approached by a psychologist who offers her help, claiming to be from victim support. She offers her card, Dr Ruby Rebello.
Thus begins Kate Mascarenhas’ sumptuous debut novel, The Psychology of Time Travel. To say that the book is about the body in the basement is overly simplistic by a fair margin. Through Ruby and Odette, we get to know the Original Four and the women they have become in a world where time travel is accepted as space travel is in ours. Each of women react differently. Margaret hardens and tightens her grip on The Conclave, Grace expresses herself through art, Lucille gathers the knowledge that powers the organisation they’ve created, while Barbara waits for her friends to come back to her. The crux of the novel is knowledge and how that affects people. To counter the fear of another breakdown, Margaret institutes psychometric testing and a rather dehumanising, rather brutal, ritual of hazing for all prospective time travellers. This creates a group that can cope with the knowledge they gain from seeing future events, especially those in their own lives. That sort of people that that process creates comes to life on Mascarenhas’ page.
A novel with a fractured narrative can easily fall apart due to being overly complex or overly clever. Throughout The Psychology of Time Travel, despite each chapter taking place in a different year and with a character, the narrative continually moves forward and is always served by the changes in time and viewpoint. Coupled to this, Mascarenhas’ characters each have a distinct voice, a unique heart and are all handled with a lightness of touch that you don’t often see in a debut novel. The mystery of who it is in the room drives the story forward, but how they got there and why they got there, especially when everyone thinks they know what the future holds, is deftly handled. As each character is introduced, we get a fresh splash of colour stitched onto the page, their desires conflicting and interrupting themselves as the struggle forward. The world they inhabit seems to have lost the idea of discovery that each day brings us, but knowing the future and actually experiencing it are shown to be wildly different things.
When I received my copy of The Psychology of Time Travel, there was note inside it from one of the team at the publishers, Head of Zeus. It said that this was “an utterly divine book”. “Challenge accepted” I thought, and proceeded to use the note as a bookmark. Having read and thought about this novel of strong, intelligent and conflicted women characters, I would have to agree, it is wonderful from the off and builds to a conclusion that is true to its characters. If this is Kate Mascarenhas’ first shot at a novel, I cannot see where she takes us next.