The clocks go forward this weekend, so signalling the start of British summertime. In honour of the lost hour, this list features five books about clocks and time.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Thanks to a glitch in his genetic code, Henry finds himself transported backwards and forwards through time. He has no control over his time-travelling exploits. They occur at random, often inopportune, moments and Henry’s life is perpetually out of synch with that of his wife, Clare. Niffenegger’s tale of a couple trying to live a normal life under extraordinary circumstances is both magical and moving. In a masterstroke, the mechanism underpinning Henry’s condition has one foot firmly rooted in current scientific research into the biological clock.
One Day by David Nicholls. The one day in question is 15th July, also known as St Swithin’s Day. Nicholls’ steam train of a bestseller records every single 15th July over a 20-year period in the lives of Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, from their university graduation in 1988 to the first signs of middle-age. The strength of this book lies in the characters of Emma and Dexter, who are each flawed in their own particular way. Their relationship and feelings towards one another oscillate with the passage of time and there is no sense of inevitability as to what each successive year will bring. A bit like real life, I suppose.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1951. Remarkably, however, she lives on to this day in laboratories all around the world in the form of her tumour cells. HeLa – as they are commonly known – were the first human cells to be propagated over and over again in a petri dish. A triumph of research endeavour, these immortalized cells have since been used in countless experiments that aim to answer questions about the nature of life and death. Yet the story of the woman behind HeLa has a dark side that goes to the heart of civil rights and medical ethics.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The star attraction of The Night Circus is undoubtedly the magic on display to the punters whenever the Circus of Dreams pitches up in town. However, throughout the narrative, you can hear an insistent tick, tock in the background. On the one hand, there are the physical clocks, intricate and marvellous timepieces created by the master clockmaker Herr Friedrick Thiessen. On the other hand, the entire circus exists as a kind of clock mechanism, comprised of concentric circles or gears. Finally, the circus exerts strange effects on time and ageing. As one character points out, “How disconcerting it is to look in a mirror and see the same face, unchanged for years.”
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Published just a couple of weeks ago, Life After Life hasn’t technically made it to my bookshelf yet. Nevertheless, the premise of Atkinson’s latest novel seemed too good a fit to miss off this list. What if you had infinite opportunities to live your life? The same life each time but with the lessons of the previous one remembered and put to practical use. That is precisely what happens to Ursula Todd in a story that may well be her own personal Groundhog Day.