The Psychology of Time Travel (2018) by Kate Mascarenhas

Once again I have been digging deep into my TBR pile to find a title which has perhaps been sitting on the heap a little too long. The Psychology of Time Travel is an unusual read for me, as I don’t tend to stray into science fiction novels, but today’s review is for a book which blends science and mystery fiction.

Book cover for The Psychology of Time Travel. It is a black background with embroidered images including rabbits, DNA helixes and flowers. The font is in yellow and white and also looks like it has been stitched on.

Synopsis

‘1967.
Four female scientists invent a time travel machine. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril…

2017.
Ruby knows her Granny Bee was the scientist who went mad, but they never talk about it. Until they receive a message from the future, warning of an elderly woman’s violent death…

2018.
Odette found the dead women at work – shot in the head, door bolted from the inside. Now she can’t get her out of her mind. Who was she? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder?’

Overall Thoughts

If you are looking for a light-hearted or cheery read then I definitely wouldn’t recommend you try this book, unless you find grim and unpleasant stories jolly. This more sombre mood of the narrative comes through in many different ways, right from the start of the story. For example, in chapter 1 as we are introduced to the four female scientists who are trying to successfully time travel, we see a rabbit used as a guinea pig for their time machine tests. The rabbit survives the test and even dodges being dissected (due to his PR value), but his successors will not be so lucky. The chapter then concludes with Barbara in a psych ward diagnosed with manic depression, brought on by multiple time travel trips. It is quite clear that she will lose her career and friends at this stage. So all in all quite a depressing beginning.

The most unpleasant aspect of the book is the world building of how time travel went on to be commercialised but also hidden behind closed doors, by the conclave, over the decades following the discovery in 1967. The unpleasantness comes through the people running and working at the place very much losing their moral compass and throwing human rights out of the window. For instance, they use trial by ordeal for their own penal system for time travel crimes (time travel crimes can only be tried by the conclave and their system contains no protection for individuals). Evidence is only used to negotiate sentences, with the emphasis time travellers put on fate, being the feeble justification for doing things this way. Moreover, the conclave’s strategies for weeding out those anxious about death are brutal and repellent, the ways they desensitize their workers to death are quite nauseating. Consequently, it is unsurprising that I found these sections very unappealing, preferring more the sections of the book set in 2017 and 2018. I am not sure if this part of the book is in keeping with science fiction or fantasy writing which might be more likely to explore the way human morality and civilised behaviour can disintegrate under certain circumstances.

In terms of characters, I didn’t immediately warm to the female lead characters from the opening chapter, a situation that didn’t overly change. Although in fairness I think for some of the characters, such as Margaret, this is not unexpected, as they are meant to be unlikeable or difficult characters. However, I think it might have helped if I had liked Barbara more, the character you are supposed to be sympathetic towards. Her minimal page presence as the book develops though, did not aid this happening.

The story attempts to add mystery and intrigue in different ways. There are the odd actions committed by characters such as Grace (one of the original female scientists), who in 2017 sends Barbara, out of the blue, an origami rabbit. This initially intrigued me, but the reason behind this action was not that satisfying. It was a pretty ineffective way of communicating – it was being elusive and cryptic for the sake of being so, which I think reflected poorly on the character.

However, the part of the story which interested me the most was the narrative strand concerning the unnamed victim who is found in the basement of a toy museum, by a volunteer on their first day. She is called Odette Sophola. It is her sections of the story which move the mystery plot along the most, so I think that is why her chapters were the ones I engaged with more. The crime scene has points of interest such as the fact it was locked from the inside, the victim had multiple gunshot wounds and bacteria is found in the victim’s blood stream which has radioactive and therefore time travel links. The murder method attached to all of this is good, but I did not feel it got the prominence in the book that it deserved. I think this is because the narrative as a whole develops the mystery quite slowly and instead devotes more page space to the backstory and the scaffolding that the ending requires. The world building emphasis is perhaps something linked to the science fiction aspect of the book. The damaging and depressing consequences of repeated time travel are another big focus in the story – clue is in the title, I guess. I think the author was very thorough in considering the implications of time travel or regular time travel humans, it was just unfortunate that a lot of these details were quite grim.

The Psychology of Time Travel is a story composed of a lot of shorter chapters and the first three cover each distinct time period with its accompanying narrative strand very well. I felt this was a positive of the reading experience as it helped to orientate readers and considering the issue more widely, I think short chapters are a definite advantage when writing a multiple strand novel. The author also avoids annoying repetition of information when the narrative strands begin to overlap, and the plot strands dovetail well. The development of the plot is enquiry led but works more like a thriller. It is less one person putting it together and more the reader seeing the bigger picture the pieces fit into. One effect of the book which I was surprised by was that the narrative presents some high stakes for the characters, yet the story has rather low levels of tension. I am not sure if my reading experience turned out that way due to my struggles with caring for the characters.

So I think in summary this is a good book but that I am just not the right audience for it.

Rating: 3.25/5

4 comments

      • I think I preferred the time travel elements to the mystery overall but it’s some time since I read it. You seem to have had quite a visceral reaction to the actions of the conclave, describing their actions as brutal and nauseating, which I definitely didn’t have. Whilst I don’t approve of what they were doing, it didn’t evoke that emotional response in me. I leant it to you mainly on the strength of the predominantly female cast, with a handful of peripheral male characters – what did you make of that dynamic? I haven’t read anything where I was as conscious of it being an almost exclusively female view, especially multiple viewpoints.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You bring up an interesting point about the predominately female cast and the female point of view, as I have to admit it wasn’t something I strongly noticed. I am still puzzling over why this is, maybe it is due to my failure to properly connect with the characters. The narrative didn’t seem starkly different to me for its female viewpoints, but maybe it would seem less different to me as a female reader? Marriage and work for women is a theme in the book, but it is one which I have come across in books such as those by June Wright and Celia Fremlin, so it probably didn’t stand out as much in this one.

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