Running Behind Time by Jan Turk Petrie
Sometimes I find a book that is so compelling that you finish it one sitting – despite the hour. This is one of them. I found this time travel story so fascinating that I was desperate to find out what happened next. Not only was I totally caught up in the story of Beth Sawyer in 1982 and Tom Brookes in 2020, but it left me thinking about some of the themes examined in this wonderful novel. What is it about the times we live in that is so different from forty years ago? Tom is a man who has returned to live with his mother to sit out the pandemic while furloughed, defined by his lack of work, living in a cottage in a small village. Beth is watching an eclipse, feeling that it is a momentous event, aware that it portends change in the July of 1982. Forty years separates them. It is only when an extraordinary set of circumstances come together that they get a glimpse of another world, of different priorities and possibilities, and an encounter that will shape their lives. In a book which immerses the reader in two different time periods, questions are asked about what has changed, and what are the implications for hindsight. I found it a really good novel, and was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it.
Tom is spending his time walking in the countryside, covering considerable distances. His mother spends her time cooking and listening to Classic FM, and is taken aback when he tells her that he is going to travel to London to see a friend about work. She points out that in July 2020 travelling on a train poses a risk, that he will have to cover his face, that when he comes back he will have to stay downstairs, mindful of the risk of spreading the virus to her. Certainly when he gets onto the train he obeys the rules of sitting a distance from others, wearing his scarf in a “desperado” fashion. When everything changes he is appalled that people are crowding around, with no masks in sight, and openly smoking. Beth is a young actress who has just landed a part in a play in a small theatre, and to please the rather pretentious director decides to spend her day off dressed and speaking like her character. This adds to the confusion when her circumstances change, as she is not wearing her usual comfortable clothing, and confuses those around her even more.
There are many clever plot points in this book, but it is also possible to admire it for the casual references to life in the two time periods such as the cars, the music and of course the mobile phones. There is a lot of humour amid the confusion, such as the influence of local gossip, the problems of clothes, and the small details of daily life which are confusing, such as phone boxes. It is in some ways a disconcerting read, or fantasy, but it is grounded in such practical settings that it is perhaps a little unsettling in a good way. I was impressed at how quickly the characters pick up on the new normal in a pandemic, such as the rules about masks and social distancing, and how defining they have become within such a short time. I thoroughly recommend this book for those interested in how this time may be seen, and how the difference of time can affect our views of life.