Earlier I wrote about my initial thoughts on The Windmill of Time by Jeffery Goldberg. It was more of a headsup article because I found reading an ebook too difficult. Since then, Jeff has kindly sent me a paperback to read in exchange for an honest review. This is it.
The Windmill of Time is the story of a man who can’t live with the consequences of his behaviour in the past and wants to make amends.
Although it’s officially divided into 4 sections, the writing style and content would suggest 5:
Jeff’s love for and relationship with Laureen
Time travel (to go back to Laureen)
Messing about with altering events
Time travel, philosophy of life and faith
I’m going to write this review by focusing on Jeff’s relationship with Laureen and then his experiences when he goes back in time. Time travel gets one juicy section at the end because as you can see from the bullet points, it glues the other sections together!
Relationship with Laureen (“First time around”)
Call me slow, but after reading the prologue and the first couple of chapters or so, it took me around 100 pages to realise that the thrust of this section was not a continuation of the time travel but to highlight the feelings between Laureen and Jeff and the relationship they had with each other.
They first meet when Jeff is 19. Often reading about relationships at this age makes me cringe as they can appear to be shallow and melodramatic. This is bogus of course because whilst it seems unrealistic to me it is very real for the couple involved. And besides, I’m external to it.
But in The Windmill of Time it is much less difficult to read about this young love. Sure, Jeff does and says stupid things and Lauren likewise, but there’s very little cringe factor. I think this is because Jeff relates well his (teenage) feelings and view of reality into an account for a more mature / experienced reader.
How does Laureen see things? We don’t know because this is first person through Jeff’s eyes and we only know what he’s told or what he thinks. And it’s not always true. So when things go pear shaped in their relationship I naturally sympathised with Jeff. But maybe Laureen had valid reasons for her words and actions, and in which case – is Jeff justified in going back to alter events?
I remember watching Groundhog Day with disgust when Phil Connors repeatedly chats up a girl everyday memorizing the ‘correct’ answers or direction in conversation in order to fool her into thinking he was worth dating. Even though the girl was unaware of previous events and conversations and was happy enough to talk (and be with) Phil, it just seemed like immoral behaviour. And it struck me that it’s potentially a similar situation in The Windmill of Time where Jeff wants to go back in time and try things out again with a relationship when you know the fix.
Later, it’s clear that Laureen has moved on realising that there is no future with Jeff and that their history together is dead to her. She becomes a born again Christian, quite literally finding a new life. The old life is dead and gone and she makes this clear to Jeff who understandably finds this difficult to take. So would she want to relive it?
This first part of the novel is very powerfully written, I feel from the heart. It’s almost a diary, but I really enjoyed it – even though it’s not time travel / scifi! 😉
The second time around – altering events
It’s 2043 and Jeff has the opportunity to go back in time. He’s spent a long time looking forward to this so it’s very strange that when he finally gets his chance he has a hard time deciding between changing the past with Laureen (“is that possible?”) or reliving life with his wife of 39 years to have children.
He decides for Laureen and if doesn’t work out he’ll try to find Inez his wife earlier than their first time around. I was confused that although Jeff is made aware of the dangers of changing the past, this is the over-riding reason for his going back in time to Laureen. And his latter fall-back option of meeting his wife and having children seems to be at odds with living for only one calendar year in the past, as stipulated by the programme which sets up the time travel – but more about that in the time travel section!
This part of the novel reads almost like a diary with entries at key dates; occasionally there’s an entry with the second time round or a memory. It adds definition to the subtitle of the novel – “A time travel memoir”.
We go back in time to 1970 i.e. to before the time Jeff goes back to in May 1971. This part of the novel is based on memory and acts as a scene setter for when the 92 year old Jeff metamorphises into his 20 year old self in 1971. Here we read about Jeff and Laureen starting from when they meet in 1970. When may 1971 comes around I was expecting to read about the metamorphosis with the future Jeff as seen now from the view point of 20 year old Jeff (we’ve read it from the point of view of the 92 year old in the early chapters) but this didn’t happen.
That said, the Jeff we read about now seems to be very different from the earlier section of the novel, and indeed he exhibits some spontaneous and rather strange behaviour. Bear in mind he’s now a 92 year old in a 20 year old body with memories of the past and knowledge of the future.
Given Jeff’s advanced age it’s ironic that this part of The Windmill of Time reads like a young adult novel. Jeff is now egocentric, and the writing style differs substantially from the earlier section. There seem to be a few things which don’t sit quite right, such as Jeff wanting to stop the marriage between Laureen and Marvin but doesn’t want to marry her himself as he might prevent her from having her future children.
The biggest thing though is the sudden switch from wanting to relive life with Laureen to trying to prevent disasters. At first he meets the mother of Barrack Obama then goes on to save an aircraft from a collision. At first I thought these things were added for the sake of it, but as the novel progresses Jeff interferes more and more with trying to change the outcome of events which he knows to have terrible consequences.
He becomes a top secret advisor to the president which results in drastic changes to global politics – yet each of the outcomes seem to have no impact on following events. This doesn’t seem likely as I’d expect that Jeff’s knowledge of the future becomes obsolete as his current time line diverges too far away from the one he already experienced and knew (otherwise why bother making these changes? ).
I must admit that I mostly found this part of the novel dull – but this is because I have no interest (or knowledge) in politics. Additionally, the killings which Jeff seeks to avert are quite gruesome and I’m aware that I’m probably more sensitive than most to these kinds of things.
I lost my rag when Jeff started messing about with his wife’s future by trying to set her up with her younger sister’s husband (from the first time around) believing that the sister can find another husband for herself easy enough. I had the feeling that Jeff was playing God a little too much here.
That said, there are a few interesting takes, for example making a phone call which had limited effect due to a difference in time zones.
All in all, this part of the novel wasn’t about Jeff and Laureen or about time travel (although events were orchestrated thanks to knowledge of the future) and could almost be a novel in it’s own right.
The theme of time travel necessarily percolates through the novel, but it has the most attention at the beginning, the middle (when Jeff goes back to 1971) and at the end.
The time travel element comes out rushed and a little bit garbled. It’s described in a newspaper cutting which reveals the methodology and touches on paradoxes, but it also relates facts about the current economic climate and why the “Senior Citizens Time Travel Project” (SCTTP) is set up. It reads as a blurt rather than as a natural description.
The SCTTP is set up in 2043 to send selected senior citizens (over 90’s) back to a time of their choosing in the past for one calendar year before being terminated. The idea is that by scourging the current population of the elderly there will be less of a drain on social resources for the remaining citizens.
Of course this is politically insensitive, but that’s based on today’s standards. Sending our elderly parents into old people’s homes to be cared for by strangers is no problem for many of us now, yet this behavior would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
The problem with the SCTTP is that it’s rolled out barely 3 years after time travel has come out of the testing phase. Seems pretty quick. And the scheme is under threat because spouses who remain in the present whilst their partner goes back in time aren’t eligible for state benefits. This seems a very unlikely scenario that one of a couple would travel and knowingly leave their partner behind in a potentially difficult financial situation. It’s a very odd reason to give for a possible closure of the SCTTP.
OK, so time travel has a flaky delivery but how is it integrated into the novel? Actually, quite nicely! 🙂
The 92 year old Jeff metamorphisises with and into a younger version of himself. This brings about a conflict of memory between the two versions of Jeff who are now one ‘being’. One remembers the past which is the unknown future of the other one. There’s a nice moment where the older version remembers a pair of jeans looking quite old but now he finds they are new; he’d been remembering a later version of the past. I was really impressed with this attention to detail!
There’s also an interesting concept I’d not really thought of before although it makes a lot of sense. Time is personal and it happens once, so in 2010 the 1971 is over. That means that people and objects etc. in 1971 no longer exist if the future is ‘in play’. Juicy eh?! But what if the future has already happened? Does 1971 exist? Interesting…!
Jeff seeks counsel from Dr Gormley who provides moral guidance every now and then, as well as insights into how some of the complexities of time travel may work through. Of course it is all theoretical and indeed he eventually has contact with Dr Arnold B Sklare who’s a protege of Michio Kaku who has a theory that if you travel in time then you travel to parallel universe.
It struck me that this is an over-easy way to solve many problems, though it is certainly not limited to The Windmill of Time. It’s always easy to make up a theory that is neither provable or disprovable.
What does come out of it though is that there is free will and no predestination because you slip into another universe where the future hasn’t happened yet. So that’s predestination taken care of and Jeff can continue changing the past without fear of paradoxes of alternate futures colliding with the one which he has already experienced.
The flaw in the implementation of the time travel seems to be such a clanger that I’m sure I must have missed something.
The flaw (as I currently see it…) is that you can relive 1 calendar year in the past before you’re terminated. This makes sense because if you continue living then you’d end up being an old person ‘again’ and a “drain on the social benefits” etc. thus negating the point of the SCTTP. But Jeff lives on – longer than 1 year.
He goes back in time to 21 May 1971, and on 20 May 1972 he and Laureen get married. This is understandably a key event, and perhaps your traditional “happy ever after” moment when the year’s time travel is over and you expect the final curtains to close. But the novel continues on 2 (or 3) June 1972 (there’s a typo) when Jeff has a private meeting with President Nixon. We’re clearly still in the “second time around” which is also made clear in various comments later in the novel.
I’m guessing that this might be because he’s now in another time line or universe (according to Dr Michio Kaku), but this is tenuous because I’d expect that during the time travel process the timer for the calendar year in the past would have been implemented and would have its deadly outcome when the time was up no matter in which universe Jeff was in. If he was in another universe thanks to time travel then so too would be the timer.
Or did the 92 year old Jeff indeed return to 2043 and get terminated but we continue reading now in the alternate past? There’s no mention of that. Either way, Jeff never seemed to worry about (or even consider) that he’d only be in the past for 1 year.
Time travel in The Windmill of Time is a necessity but I feel that in a way it’s overdone. It tries to cover a lot of bases but instead of doing a few well we end up with a nod to many interesting ideas but with no further development. For example, the time travel method could have been left at black box, but a short description of a space / time warp begs more questions than answers. I wanted more (or nothing).
Similarly, the injection and accepted assumption of parallel universes came out of nowhere. More (or less) information would have been nice; the current level raises too many questions.
In short, the information relating to the time travel element sits uncomfortably between too much and too little 🙁 A little more attention to time travel, or even a little less, would have made this a blinding time travel novel!
The last few pages of the book make a nice conclusion to all that has gone before. It’s reflective and moralistic but it’s odd that it’s largely delivered by Dr Michio Kaku – an expert in time travel. A chat with Dr Gormley, Jeff’s spiritual confidante, would have given it greater credibility, although I suspect that Jeff filters thing through with his own understanding and interpretation of events and how they fit into the bigger picture – which now involves God.
This latter point really struck me because until now there was almost a deliberate effort by Jeff to avoid God.
When Jeff finds out he can change the past by agreeing to go to Hana with Laureen it hit me – Laureen will have a new future (with Jeff) but one where the chances are high that she won’t become a born again Christian.
I asked earlier would Laureen want to relive her life then. Well actually she does get to make this choice when all is explained. Of course she’s happy to give up her alternate children she doesn’t (yet) know, and it’s easy to make a commitment to someone who you still love, not believing that that things can go wrong.
But Jeff never mentions Christian faith when explaining things to Laureen, and neither to Dr Gormley when together they question the ethics of time travel and their upcoming marriage. It seems like an unnatural omission, especially as Laureen had explained to Jeff that her Christian faith was one of the reasons why she disregarded their past together “the first time around”. Was Jeff deliberately being dishonest and concealing things?
By the end of the novel I felt that Laureen is the loser in this saga. I started reading it hoping that she would be some sort of saving heroine instead of a prop for Jeff but admittedly, a novel which reads differently to initial expectation is not always a bad thing!
Rating * * *
I’m giving The Windmill of Time a subjective rating of a strong 3 stars but it’s important to note that this is largely based on the time travel element (because this is a time travel blog 😉 ).
I really like the idea of metamorphosis into a younger self and the mental clash between younger and older versions in the same body is thought provoking. Some of the ideas behind time travel are interesting, such as what happens to past events when the future is in play?
Unfortunately the presentation of the time travel aspect was rushed and it took a minimal role in the overall story line.
I’m going to head over to Amazon and Goodreads and leave an objective 4 stars there because this is a good novel which generally I enjoyed despite the young adult / political second half.
All author profits from sales of The Windmill of Time will be donated to Breast Cancer Research and the Susan G. Komen Foundation in memory of Laureen Tanaka-Sanders. Pictures of Jeff and Laureen are available on Facebook.
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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of “The Windmill of Time” to read and provide an honest review. This is it!
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