The Map of Time

Felix J. Palma 
(Translated by Nick Caistor)

Atria Books

Noticing that Andrew continued to look at him nonplussed, [Wells] added: “It is as though your action has caused a split in time, created a sort of alternative universe, a parallel world, if you like. And in this world Marie Kelly is alive and happy with your other self. Unfortunately, you are in the wrong universe.”

                                  --from The Map of Time


A novel of smoke and mirrors

Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time is a big, ripping yarn, a fantastical mix of history, science fiction, and metaphysical musings on the nature and meaning of time,

It is 1896, and London is a-buzz with the publication of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the possibility of travel through the fourth dimension.

The book is not only set in the Victorian age, but resembles a Victorian novel, the story sprawling with a multitude of characters and plots and subplots and coincidences worthy of Dickens—characters accidentally bump into each other just at the right moment, London being such a small city after all. Actually, time travel is less implausible than a number of the plot’s twists and turns.

Yet this is a fun story where the author performs gymnastics of the imagination, playing with the idea of time and parallel universes and going into the past to alter the future, with unforeseen complications—One character receives a letter addressed to him from his future self!

Palma provides much historical detail about London at that time (pollution from thousands of cars may still be preferable to pollution from thousands of horses), and introduces into his story real people from the past: Jack the Ripper, once again dissecting prostitutes in Whitechapel; Bram Stoker, author of Dracula; Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, appearing in a very moving chapter that shows the “hideous monster” to have been an intelligent and gentle soul; and Palma plays with the friendly rivalry between Wells and Henry James (“If Wells recognized any merit in James, it was his undeniable talent for using very long sentences in order to say nothing at all.”)

There is also some quite beautiful writing  (“she had stepped with infinite care, almost reverentially, into the waves that looked like the ocean losing its petals.”)

Some may find the narrator almost too chummy at times, as he addresses the reader directly (“Yes, I know that when I began this tale I promised there would be a fabulous time machine, and there will be …”), but I enjoyed this style, as if the author was sitting right there, telling us his story.

Eventually, the reader discovers that much of the plot has been a trick conjured with smoke and mirrors, which, however, doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the magic Palma has performed for us.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 15-February 14, 2012). Reprinted with permission.