The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas is a time travel murder mystery with strong female characters and an exploration of the effects of time travel on the human psyche.
Time travel as a concept in a fiction novel isn’t new, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy – H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine being one of the most well-known examples. But Kate Mascarenhas has written a book that imagines a world in which the cognitive effects of time travel are put under the microscope, where the people who time travel become blasé about human mortality, and some even becoming cold, cruel, and a little psychopathic.
The novel begins in the summer of 1967, when four female scientists, Barbara, the youngest, a mathematician and specialist in nuclear fission, Grace, an expert in matter, Margaret, a baroness and cosmologist, and Lucille, who makes radio waves travel faster than light, build a time travel machine. After their success, Margaret insists on holding press interviews:
‘Margaret took the lead. “Well, for our first excursion, we activated the machine at ten a.m. on Christmas day. It transported us, instantaneously, to eleven o’clock of the same morning. At half past eleven we activated the time machine again, and travelled back to one minute past ten. What that means is between ten and ten-oh-one we didn’t exist in the world at all. But between eleven and eleven-thirty, there were twice as many of us – and we were able to meet.”’
This was Barbara’s cue to explain away the paradox of time travel, but instead she has a breakdown on camera, unable to form coherent sentences, a result of feeling strange after their repeated trips to the future. She is sent home, and the other three women promptly disown her in an effort to keep her illness from tainting their work, or casting doubt over the safety of time travel.
We then move forward to 2017, where Barbara is now a grandmother, fondly renamed Granny Bee by her granddaughter Ruby Rebello (who is a psychologist). Bee has never spoken to Ruby about her infamous breakdown on screen, or her days inventing time travel, despite the fact that Ruby knows her grandmother is ‘the time traveller that went mad’. But when Ruby finds an origami rabbit on her Granny Bee’s doorstep marked ‘For Barbara’, a message from Grace, this prompts Bee to open up and tell Ruby all about what happened to her. Bee becomes excited about time travel again, saying she has a possible new idea related to the fuel used in time travelling. Ruby becomes worried about the effect this new development is having on her grandmother, and begins to investigate Bee’s past, getting in touch with Grace.
The novel skips to 2018, where Odette, an archaeology student, is volunteering at a toy museum. On her first day, she is appointed the task of opening up, and she notices a strange smell in the basement. She discovers the dead body of a woman, in a room locked from the inside. When the inquest doesn’t reveal the identity of the dead woman, Odette is compelled to discover who she is, and why, and how, she was killed.
The novel moves backward and forward across these three time periods, revealing by small increments the mystery at the heart of the novel, how all three women are linked, and what happens to the four women who invented time travel. How do you catch a killer who could be from any place or any time? How do you discover their motives when you don’t know the identity of the deceased? The storytelling has enough depth and explores the inner lives of each of the women without becoming too unwieldy. There were quite a few characters added in as the novel progressed, but Mascarenhas doesn’t add so many that it becomes confusing. To begin with, the moving back and forth between time periods needed getting used to, but all the scenes contributed to moving the story towards the climax and conclusion.
For me, the element of psychology in this novel was what made it extra compelling. After Barbara’s breakdown, Margaret assumes command and names the time travel organisation the Conclave, and enforces rigid psychological tests for all of the people working there. She becomes megalomaniacal over the course of the novel, refusing to even entertain the idea of Barbara returning to her work at the Conclave. Anyone found with any kind of psychological issue, whether mild or severe, is ejected from the Conclave. It becomes clear that Margaret’s leadership affects the workplace ethos and atmosphere, creating time travellers that often lack empathy or sensitivity.
The novel explores many psychological and cognitive issues facing time travel, from how to cope with meeting multiple versions of yourself, dealing with timelines where you are no longer alive or not yet born, seeing the deaths of your loved ones, or knowing when they – and you – are going to die, and the effects of time-travel induced jet-lag. The novel treats these issues in a way that comes across as part of the story, and not just ‘explained’. For example, Grace has moments when there are at least three different incarnations of her in the same place. The sexual politics within the novel are also just as fluid as the idea of time-travel itself. In all, the novel is full of fascinating ideas about what a life with time travel would look like, and the stresses, freedoms, and constraints it would give to human beings.
This is truly a book full of compelling female characters – led by a band of lady scientists no less! – and I’m still thinking about it weeks later. It’s one of those books that I will definitely revisit and think about some more. And the cover is amazing – I keep wondering if it was actually embroidered! A great debut from a talented and imaginative author.
‘Odette was in no rush to leave. Maman would be at home, with questions Odette didn’t know how to answer yet. She could linger a while. The last installation stood close to the exit. A black, cubic hut, reminiscent of a miniature time machine. She walked into it and a video screen was playing in the darkness. The woman on the screen was Fay. Fay before she was jaded. A luminous Fay.’