Anyone who has spent time in bookstores or libraries has found them: short notes, usually handwritten, tucked away in books to be found by the latest reader of the title. Typically, they are ad-hoc bookmarks, inadvertently left behind by a previous reader. When you find one of these, what do you do? Do you throw the note away, assuming it is trash, or do you place it back in the book? If you choose to put it back, do you read it before you do so? What if you found a note, read it and discovered that it was not arbitrarily left in the book, but quite consciously placed there for someone else to find and read? By finding the note, you had stumbled upon a conversation that had been happening for an incredible amount of time? In his new novella, Time Was, Ian McDonald explores these fascinating possibilities.
As another used bookstore in London closes, Emmet finds himself part of a small group of book collectors and dealers rummaging through the last remaining titles. It is here that he finds a slim volume entitled Time Was, and tucked within its pages there is a love letter. Emmet reads the letter and becomes curious about both the writer and the recipient. It was written during WWII, and Emmet begins to search the few clues in the text to see if he can identify either individual. His research leads him to Thorn, the eccentric descendant of a WWII chaplain still in possession of his wartime journals. Thorn allows Emmet to examine the journals, and eventually joins him in the search to identify the lovers. Together, they find more notes in more books. They also discover references to the lovers in documents, photographs, and footage from both WWI and the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, covering a period of over seven decades. Yet the images of the men barely change, regardless of when they were captured. Who are these men? When did this start? Has the last of the letters been written?
In Time Was, Ian McDonald weaves a tale of love found and lost across time and space. Time Was is two stories: one about of a pair of WWII lovers separated by a military experiment gone awry, the second about a lonely London book dealer drawn into a quest to unravel the mystery of the lovers uncovered by the notes they leave for each other in old books. McDonald uses these stories to explore how love found can bind people, how love lost can force people apart, and the lengths we will sometimes go to chasing the former while attempting to avoid the latter. All of these themes are tempered with a strong sense of wonder, the rush of discovery, and a sense of completion as the pieces of the mystery begin to fall into place. Time Was is a lovely story, lyrically and beautifully written.