Friday, December 19, 2008

Review - Bid Time Return

Bid Time Return
by Richard Matheson
1976 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

For what its worth I'm planning on reviewing the World Fantasy Award winning novels on Monday and Wednesday but work related emergencies have kept me running (and on that note, Internet Explorer users, install your security updates).

Bid Time Return is better known as Somewhere in Time which it was retitled to after the release of the cult Christopher Reeve movie. I had seen the movie years ago and didn't think much of it; there was nothing wrong with the film it just didn't impress me. I had a similar reaction to the novel.

In the novel a television writer dying of a brain tumor decides to spend his last few months traveling. He comes to an isolated hotel on the Californian coast where things still have a feel of its nineteenth century origins. Within a small museum of the hotel's past he sees the image of a stage actress from seventy-five years before that haunts him and he seeks to learn about her life. The actress's life coincides with his own in strange ways and leads him to discover a theory of reliving the past through hypnotism. He thinks he has fallen in love with her and these coincidences make him believe that he knew her in the past so he resolves to use self-hypnosis to travel back in time in order to be her lover.

A person's enjoyment of the novel is going to depend on two things which I didn't care for but it does not surprise me to find that others appreciate them. The first is the writing style. Matheson opens the book as a transcript of the writer talking into a tape recorder. Speaking in stacato fragments. Broken sentences. Grow wearying quickly. Don't know anyone who speaks that way. Feels unnatural. Goes on for fifty or sixty pages.

Eventually Matheson does switch to a more traditional narrative but to have such a jarring tone immediately in the book made it difficult to connect with the story in those critical early pages. Since was annoyed with the prose for that first quarter of the book it was rough going when it did settle down.

Secondly I didn't care for the characters at all. A man who sees a woman once and then stalks her through time struck me as creepily obsessive rather than romantic. His would be love strikes me as little more than blank slate. I didn't care what happened to either of them and since the story is a romance that was a terminal failing.

On the positive side of things Matheson clearly worked hard to get the atmosphere of late nineteenth century California right and he managed to do it without it coming across as an info dump to the reader. He cuts through the pop culture vision of the era and consequently makes it feel more natural. Getting the details to feel right without overwhelming the reader is a a rare enough skill to make that worth mentioning.

In addition the ending for the story is particularly memorable. Irregardless of the fact that the characters reduced my interest of the plot the conclusion is something that will stay with you.

There are books I love and books I hate but with Bid Time Return I think I was just the wrong person for the book. I didn't care for it but if you like the idea of a cross-time romance and don't object to the abreviated style of the early sections then you could find it something worth reading.