“Too many of the war loves I had followed did not survive. Peace killed them. People returned to their old lives and loves; quickly the old order reasserted itself, the very order for which they had fought.”
At the closing of London’s Golden Page book store, an online book dealer finds an anonymous book of poetry dating from shortly before the Second World War. Inside is a love letter from Tom to Ben. An online posting about the two men leads to a woman’s attic in the Fenlands, where her grandfather keeps an archive of his father’s war, including a photo of a group of British soldiers in Alexandria. But deep in the bowels of the Imperial War Museum’s photo archives, more images are waiting to be discovered. Because Tom and Ben’s story span’s time, from Crimea to the Rape of Nanking, to Bosnia, wherever there is a war, there seems to be a photo of the two lovers, caught in the midst of the conflict, and our bookseller becomes obsessed with how they got there.
Time Was is told in alternating chapters, one in the present timeline, and then one that follows Tom and Ben when they are stationed at a military project on the East Coast of England while the country prepares for a German invasion. Ben is a scientist, while Tom is an itinerant poet and messenger boy, but they secretly fall in love in the midst of the secretive chaos of the Uncertainty Squad’s classified undertaking. However, Tom and Ben are less important as characters themselves, than they are as the subject of the narrator’s obsession, and his trip down the rabbit hole into figuring out how two men who appear to age very little could appear in photos from wars more than a hundred years apart. As the narrator tracks down other copies of Time Was, we also get to read more letters from Tom and Ben, but they remain at a remove.
Our narrator has an old friend at the Imperial War Museum, who conveniently provides access to the photo archive, as well as a peek at information that is not officially for public consumption. Shahrzad also has a gift as a super-recognizer that speeds up the plot; there is no need to chronicle a long intensive search, as might be done in a novel, though to be sure, McDonald chronicles an obsession that spans years. Shahrzad’s skill, and the access provided by her job allows the narrator to be obsessed with the clues rather than the research itself, to the exclusion of almost everything else. While this speeds up the research, it also highlights a rather unappealing aspect of the narrator; he uses the women around him to further his quest, with no regard for them. In addition to using Shahrzad’s access, he also moves in with Thorn, the woman whose attic yielded the first clue in his search. (But we shouldn’t feel bad when he leaves her in the end, because it turns out that she was sleeping with a bunch of other men!)
Alongside the plot, Ian McDonald builds in a lament for the death of the brick and mortar book store. When they are separated across time, Ian and Ben leave copies of the anonymous book of poetry, Time Was, in independent bookstores across the world, with letters inside. Each bookstore holds special instructions not to sell the book, and to buy any copy of the book they find elsewhere. If a bookstore closes, the book should be sent to another. But as the modern era dawns, Ben and Tom’s messaging drops are dwindling, going out of business one by one.
As a story, Time Was is melancholy and slightly unsatisfying. It was pitched to me as a sad but romantic gay time travel story, and certainly that is what the cover copy, which focuses on Tom and Ben, and never mentions the narrator, would lead you to believe. There are some good aspects to the story that McDonald has actually written, from beautiful prose, to cool science, and great use of epistolary elements, but the protagonist of this novella is the bookseller, and the story told here is his.
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