Every now and then, those of us who avidly read children’s literature with and for the children in our lives need a little break. We need a book that is more sophisticated, more layered, and, well, more grown-up. In keeping with our time travel theme this summer, let me offer up a suggestion for you grown-ups out there who want a book of your own to read. (This book also works for college students and those upper teens who might find our teen Summer Reading Challenge choices just a touch “young,” but you will find it in the adult fiction section of your local library–see my notes below the review for more information.)
Ned Henry is on yet another time drop in 1940 in Coventry Cathedral just after the air raid by the Nazis that destroyed the cathedral. Desperately hunting for the bishop’s bird stump, he and his fellow time travelers are trying to get their stories straight (so the “contemps” don’t suspect they’re from roughly 100 years in the future) and working on a strict schedule. After all, the tyrannical Lady Schrapnell is insistent that her 21st century restoration of Coventry Cathedral be exact down to the last detail and has been sending Ned on more time drops than are recommended back to back. The consecration of the new cathedral is rapidly approaching. Abruptly yanked back to the infirmary for his waxing eloquence on the virtues of man’s best friend, Ned is diagnosed with time-lag (caused from his many recent time drops) and prescribed strict rest. Rest his supervisor deems will best happen in the Victorian time period while Ned is simultaneously on another mission with the lovely Miss Kindle. After all, the Victorian time period was idyllic, slow-paced, and very restful, right? Wrong, oh so wrong.
And so the reader is plunged into Ned’s dilemma in this tightly written, humorous novel that involves time travel, a touch of romance, a lot of mystery, some very clever writing, and many hilarious satirical observations of the Victorians. The Victorian characters are pitch perfect, and the myriad references to British literature–particularly Shakespeare, the Victorian poets, Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog, and the masters of the British mystery (Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie) add to the enjoyment for any reader who is remotely familiar with them. Ned is a wonderfully witty narrator to boot.
I enjoy reading books that make my brain work as I read. This is definitely such a book. Since the book is told from Ned’s perspective, we are in the dark along with him until he figures out how to solve the problem at hand. We arrive at his conclusions with him, we learn along with him what the bishop’s bird stump is, and we see the Victorians through his 21st century eyes. The time travel in this book is quite well done, and it’s not overly “scifi” in feeling. The romance is delightful, but the book is definitely not “mushy;” guys will enjoy this one, too.
One of my favorite parts of this book are the musings over our place in the space-time continuum. There are references to the Grand Design, the continuum correcting itself, the amount of free will we have, the place even small objects and actions have in directing the course of future events, and the wondering whether we can alter something significant through one person’s actions (past or future). If you do choose to read this book with a college student or your spouse, I have no doubt you will have some interesting conversations! The perspective in this book is very amenable to discussion within a Christian worldview.
Note for parents: Like many British novels, this one contains some British swear words/phrases. It also contains many references to seances and mediums. I mention this because this is partly what skews this novel to an older teen/college crowd. The seances and mediums are clearly portrayed as frauds and in keeping with the Victorians’ sentimentality and fascination with the “spirit world.” Still, we encourage our teen readers to read along with our regular teen choices. We will not be “discussing” this book as a group like we will those.