What’s the opposite of a time-traveller? I suppose it’s somebody who is stuck in one time – and that’s precisely the predicament of the Hyde family at the beginning of S.E. Lister’s novel The Immortals (published a few months ago – and indeed read a few months ago; I’ve been intending to review it for so long, but… Christmas got in the way). They have been living and re-living 1945 for many years, moving at the end of every year, and judging passing time by location rather than world events. This has been the decision of Rosa Hyde’s father, who – for some reason she doesn’t really understand – can’t bare the idea of leaving the year, or the ‘main event’ of going up to London for the declaration of peace.
I say ‘at the beginning’ of the novel, but in fact the novel opens with Rosa’s return – from where (or, more importantly, when) is not immediately clear. (And what an opening line it is! I love its intrigue.)
Rosa came home after seven years, in the same year she had left. It was the beginning of the wet spring she knew so well. She found their cottage on the edge of a village, the latest Hyde home in a string of many, tucked out of the way behind a disused cattle barn. There were sandbags stacked against the steps, blackout curtains in every window. Bindweed framed the doorway. Beyond the fields a church spire rose into the dusky sky, lashed by rain, its chimes silenced.
Lister has a knack for portraying a time and place quickly and effectively. This is an example, but there are plenty in the novel – because we then see all the times and places that Rosa has travelled. Once away from the 1945-dwelling of her father, she is able to travel much more widely. We rush through a maelstrom of places and periods, with local colour thrown in at just the right amount – on one page, afraid in a busy Victorian street; shortly after, made a near-deity in a bygone era. That section was rather lovely – seeing Rosa elevated in that way, after her years of 1945 tedium – but things become more complex when she meets Tommy Rust. He is a fellow Immortal (and believes in this immortality with his whole heart), and something of a suave, risky gent of the sort that is rather dashing in literature and might not be so much outside of it.
And then there is the soldier Harding, who makes things even more complicated – though I thing I was more affected by the brothers who travelled together as much as possible, and were distraught at the possibility of being separated. But, y’know, brothers always get me.
I’m not much of a one for time-travel novels in general, but I certainly am for novels about family dynamics – so I liked The Immortals best when Rosa was dealing with abandoning her family, and coping with missing many years of her younger sister’s life, and that sort of thing – all of which was handled nicely. The climax of the day peace was declared in 1945 – a day on which Rosa’s father always goes to London to join in the celebrations, trying to avoid other iterations of himself in the crowd – was very moving, and an excellent peak. Indeed, it seems rather as though the non-sci-fi sections of The Immortals were my favourites… and perhaps that was inevitable. But more skill is required to make quotidian events and relationships captivating than is needed to pick a selection of intriguing years and write about them – so kudos for Lister there, and it will be intriguing to see what she could turn her hand to in a more earth-bound genre, if she ever chooses to give that a whirl.
Thanks, Sophie, for sending me a copy of this book.