‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.
The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:
‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’
The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.
The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.
Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.
The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.
Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.
Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.
‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.
‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.
‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’
Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’
And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.
In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.
Thanks to Viking for the review copy.