December 18, 2018

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Time-travel novel explores feelings of loss

Polly and Frank are an ordinary couple living in Buffalo, N.Y. They are deeply in love. But on a spontaneous holiday to Galveston, Texas, Frank contracts a quick-spreading, deadly flu.

The pandemic traps them far from home, and the couple cannot afford medical care. But Frank will receive life-saving treatment if Polly agrees to go away to work as a bonded labourer for 32 months.

There’s a catch: Polly’s months of labour will last years for Frank: She will be sent more than a decade into the future to work for TimeRaiser.

She and Frank make a plan to meet in the future; Polly, however, arrives years later than expected, and the place they intended to meet is no longer accessible. Her quest to find Frank in the future forms the backbone of An Ocean of Minutes, the debut novel by Singapore-raised, Toronto-based Thea Lim.

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Polly and Frank are an ordinary couple living in Buffalo, N.Y. They are deeply in love. But on a spontaneous holiday to Galveston, Texas, Frank contracts a quick-spreading, deadly flu.

The pandemic traps them far from home, and the couple cannot afford medical care. But Frank will receive life-saving treatment if Polly agrees to go away to work as a bonded labourer for 32 months.

There’s a catch: Polly’s months of labour will last years for Frank: She will be sent more than a decade into the future to work for TimeRaiser.

She and Frank make a plan to meet in the future; Polly, however, arrives years later than expected, and the place they intended to meet is no longer accessible. Her quest to find Frank in the future forms the backbone of An Ocean of Minutes, the debut novel by Singapore-raised, Toronto-based Thea Lim.

As a time-travel novel, Lim makes the interesting choice to set the story entirely in the past. Frank and Polly fall in love in the 1970s, Frank contracts the flu in 1981, and Polly travels forward in time to the 1990s. Presumably, the move allows Lim to explore time travel without having to invent flying cars or other newfangled technologies. While some authors might have crammed the story with time-specific pop-culture references, Lim refrains; neither the 1980s nor the 1990s of the novel are the same as the ones we remember.

While the story is set in the past, Lim incorporates several themes that seem ripped from today’s headlines, including mass migration and the intersection of race and class.

Overnight, Polly moves to a country she doesn’t recognize, with society, rules and culture she struggles to understand.

In the years that passed while she travelled, her nation separated into two countries: the affluent United States of the north, and flu-devastated America below the Mason-Dixon line. Although she came from and arrived in Texas, Polly is not technically considered an American citizen — she’s in America on a temporary visa.

Under the terms of the visa, Polly can only be employed by TimeRaiser, and she cannot leave TimeRaiser’s jurisdiction until she finishes her bond period. The length of her bond is related to the debt she owes the company, and that debt grows as she pays the equivalent of the "company store" for accommodations, food and incidentals such as phone calls and toothbrushes.

Her new world strictly divides people by class — those who have travelled from the past and those who exist in their natural time. Migrants are further subdivided by skill: those who do manual labour — such as pedalling stationary bicycles to generate electricity — and those with "special skills" such as training in medicine and... upholstery.

An Ocean of Minutes is a novel that largely defies classification. It includes elements of post-apocalyptic dystopia, science fiction and suspense. It is built around a love story, but it is more a story of loss and longing than romance. At its heart, the novel is an unusual investigation on the impact of being separated from the people you love. It is set in a past that could be our future.

Wendy Sawatzky is associate digital news editor at the Winnipeg Free Press and commander-in-chief at wendysawatzky.com.

Wendy Sawatzky

Wendy Sawatzky
Associate Editor Digital News

Wendy Sawatzky brought her twin passions for writing and technology to the Winnipeg Free Press in 2008. She's currently the paper's associate editor for digital news.

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