An Ocean of Minutes / Thea Lim
Toronto: Viking, c2018.
This is the only novel on the Giller 20108 shortlist that I've read so far. And honestly, I'm not 100% sure I'd have put this one on my own personal shortlist if I were a judge. It's not very Canadian at all, in setting or in feel.
I was first attracted by the story, another dystopian tale of women and an uncertain future. I've been reading so many of these lately. In this one, it's a bit of a different setup -- it's the 80's, there's a deadly flu raging across America, and in order to afford a treatment for her boyfriend Frank, Polly takes the opportunity offered by a time travel company who will take you forward as basically an indentured servant to work off your debt. The plan is that Frank and Polly can meet up again in 15 years when he catches up to her in time, even though he'll be 15 years older while she's only a year or so older. It's perfect.
But of course it isn't. Polly's odd skills as an upholsterer are, for some reason, in demand. When she arrives in the future, two years later than she'd been scheduled for, she tries to get to the arranged meet-up location she and Frank had set for themselves. She's part of a regimented workforce, though, with hardly any free time, and there are security barriers everywhere, making it hard for her to move anywhere. And there is a strange subplot with her boss, the reason she's been sent forward in time, although it doesn't seem like he actually does anything.
She struggles through a difficult year, trying to adjust to her new reality in a divided America. And when she finally finds a way to leave Texas to find her long-lost aunt, and hopefully Frank, things don't turn out quite as she'd planned.
The pros of the story were its interesting set-up, and potential for some really interesting investigation of time, age, and troubled history/future timelines.
The cons, for me, were far more in evidence. The time travel element wasn't used to full advantage, I didn't feel -- it was very mundane and dull. The dystopia was sort of believable but not entirely -- America was divided after the flu, but seems to have gone on much the same as before, though more fragmented. Polly and Frank's love story, and their very names and back stories, are painfully everyman, so bland! But worst of all for me was the emotional throughline of the book. There is no payoff for the world building Lim is doing; why did Polly go through all of this? What did she learn? What relevance does it have to a wider humanity? Does love conquer all?
None of these questions were satisfactorily answered for me; to my tastes this was a cynical and despairing read. I think I am not in the mood for these sort of trendy ideas these days -- if I want terrible and hopeless I'll just read the news. In a dystopian novel published in times like this, I want to see some sense of meaning. We can already see the terrible path we're on -- I want some vision of redemption, which I didn't get here at all. So, not my favourite read of the year.
In its inconclusive narrative, and the idea of civilization just petering out without much thought, it reflects another recent dystopia I've just read, Liz Harmer's The Amateurs. Both of these books miss their chance to say something powerful about humanity's survival, I feel. For a dystopia that is beautiful and still resonates with hope in a terrible time, I will still go with Station Eleven for my best bet.