A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)
And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!
Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.
The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.
What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.
This is speculative fiction by the truckload, happily mingling SF, fantasy and, as we shall see, a whole heap of myth and legend. Yet such fiction works particularly well when there is a sense of authenticity, of drawing on and reflecting real life, and especially if that sense includes a bit of the author themself. When Dicken was writing A Tale of Two Cities he confessed to “a strong desire to embody” the main idea of his story in his own person: “Throughout its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”
To some extent this is true of the genesis of Jones’s novel, and certainly when we consider its opening. It starts with the familiar story of the evacuation of London children when war was declared in September 1939, accompanied by their name-tags and their luggage and their gas masks. Now, Diana Wynne Jones was herself evacuated from England’s capital, first to Wales one very hot August day and then some time later to the Lake District, whereas Vivian Smith goes by train from London to somewhere in the West Country (from suggestive details it could even be Glastonbury); though being only just five, and not the eleven years of age Vivian was, Diana gives a clue later to her birth year when an old penny with 1934 is specifically mentioned. The first few pages of the novel therefore have a vividness that evokes its time really well.
There is more. Along with Vivian two other youngsters feature, cousins Jonathan Walker and Sam Donegal. All three cooperate but they also bicker; in fact they indulge in all the usual kinds of escapades that children with a large degree of personal freedom — certainly those in Time City — are prone to. There must have been the same kind of camaraderie between the young Diana and her two sisters, and she will have seen similar loyalties and tiffs in her own three sons. That aspect of the trio feels rooted in reality, though of course most of our investment will be on the character of Vivian. That this character’s parents are distant in time, space and emotion is also very telling in relation to the author’s own upbringing. Finally, the combination of a semi-divine or divine first name (Vivian, Diana) with a very common surname (Smith, Jones) is extremely suggestive of some kind of identification on the author’s part.
The plot is a tangle of threads which it’s better to read rather than be summarised: it largely involves working out the mystery of who is after certain treasures — four ‘caskets’ which relate to the stability of time and Time City — and how Vivian and the boys may circumvent utter disaster. What I can hint at is the multiplicity of influences from myth, legend and traditional tales that Jones has woven into her narrative. Vivian’s name (a unisex name, interestingly) naturally reminds us of the Merlin legend, especially the accounts in which the magician is made to sleep enclosed in a tree or entombed under a stone. Vivian’s surname recalls the age-old role of the blacksmith as a community’s repository of skills, lore magic and mystery, and also shadowy figures from folksong or associated with prehistoric tombs such as Weland’s Smithy. The four metal caskets may remind us of the riddle test in The Merchant of Venice, the key to winning Portia as a wife, or more particularly the various ages of metal — gold, silver etc — cited by Hesiod, Ovid and others.
Jones herself being a wordsmith, we enjoy her fun with places in the city such as squares, buildings and avenues with names like Aeon and Whilom, and also official titles like Sempitern. While quite a few characters have anglicised names, others are called Ranjit or Abdul, for example, suggesting a more multiracial ancestry. And there’s an android called Elio, a homonym of L-E-O, which makes me wonder whether Jones has also included other zodiacal figures … but I’ll leave future readers to puzzle this out!
Diana Wynne Jones writes novels which at first sight appear thoroughly whimsical, even unpredictable, aspects which may either endear her to the reader or enrage them. Dig a little deeper, though — as in A Tale of Time City — and there are layers which reveal that not all is as whimsical and unpredictable as at first appears. But, ultimately, it’s as a rattling good storyteller that she’ll be remembered, and this novel testifies to that; and when the reader gets to the end and the story starts to wrap up you may exclaim, along with Vivian, “Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!”
8/21 TBR Books in 2021
A read for March Magics; also, as Diana Wynne Jones was half Welsh, this could count as a read for Dewithon