Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.
In 1954 an eleven year old girl named Cynthia carries a wrongly delivered parcel to its correct destination across the road. There she meets Miss Hatfield, who has a collection of portraits and antiques plus a strange clock with unusual intervals marking its dial. Miss Hatfield gives Cynthia a glass of lemonade into which she has poured the last drop of liquid from a vial. Within a few pages – bare minutes of conversation, and no change of scene – Cynthia has become a fully grown woman. The physics of this transformation, the chemistry required, its energetics, are all not so much skimmed over or ignored as seemingly unconsidered. The process is only a means for Caltabiano to propel her narrator into the story she wishes to tell. It does of course also signal Cynthia’s altered reality.
Miss Hatfield tells Cynthia the fateful drop was the last remnant of a bottle filled from a mysterious lake stumbled upon by Juan Ponce de León on his first voyage to Florida. The liquid confers immortality on its drinkers. The Misses Hatfield have been employing it to recruit new versions of themselves ever since it came into their hands. Moreover they use the strange clock – which an early Miss Hatfield just happened upon – to navigate time. Miss Hatfield informs her new protégée time is not a river, but a lake; existing all at once. Quite why a clock would then be a suitable device to use to sail on it is odd. Moreover, how it actually manages to achieve this feat is never divulged. Again, it just happens.
Cynthia accepts the actions of Miss Hatfield, plus her subsequent demands to go to 1904 to steal a portrait, indeed begins to think of herself as Rebecca Hatfield, the seventh such, amazingly readily. In no time at all, corsetted and long-skirted, she is rushing off through carless streets to the house of Charles Beauford, who fortuitously takes her for his niece Margaret. There she meets his son Henley who, despite knowing she cannot be his cousin, plays along with the deception. The seventh Miss Hatfield has something of a charmed life, it seems.
This is fine as far as it goes but here the story gets bogged down as Caltabiano’s over-arching fantasy becomes somewhat lost amid the details of the burgeoning relationship between Henley and his “cousin.” True, every so often the new Miss Hatfield (she forgets her past life all too easily) remembers she is supposed to be stealing the painting and also experiences a growing sense of wrongness associated with being out of time but this is all diluted by the routines of daily life in a well-to-do Edwardian household and a preponderance of “playful” dialogue. Even the appearance of the Porter sisters, Christine and Eliza (the first of whom and Henley are effectively promised to each other, the second is by far the most interesting character in the book) does not give Rebecca a quick way back to her own time – or later. Cynthia/Rebecca/Margaret also has a very modern idea of servants’ individuality and sense of self but is annoyingly gauche. Her discovery of what the reader sees as links between the Misses Hatfield and the elder Mr Beauford does not give her pause about her sponsor’s motives.
The book is adorned with a cleverly designed Escheresque cover and the accompanying promotional blurb makes much of Caltabiano’s youth. That earns no free pass here; but Caltabiano can write – even if she occasionally employs awkward sentence constructions and lacks quite the necessary feel for the detail of late nineteenth/early twentieth century speech and mores. In their trip to the country, Henley drives the automobile himself. Families like his had chauffeurs for such tasks. And I doubt that, once the car had broken down, an unmarried man and woman at that time (cousins or not) would be allowed to sleep in the same space – even if it was a barn.
There are other details which niggled. Except in the most unusual circumstances would her assumed persona as Mr Beauford’s sister’s daughter still have his surname? The sixth Miss Hatfield refers to being shown a photo sometime in the early 1840s. So early? Eliza mentions that ever since reading Jules Verne she has wondered about the possibility of time travel. (Oh dear. Unless this is an altered universe in which Verne actually wrote any such stories.) The women take part at a burial. In 1904?
Caltabiano’s story of time-crossed love is never entirely convincing, the book’s resolution a touch rushed, the supposed poignancy of the epilogue not fully earned by the preceding pages and the speculative content comes down to trappings. There are two more novels to come, though.
Pedant’s corner:- goodnight for good night, Tu scies nunquam finem. (Since in Latin verbs are placed at the end of a sentence should this not be Nunquam finem scies?)