the Little Red Reviewer

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

Posted on: July 1, 2018

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

published April 2018

where I got it: purchased new




Stories tell us who we are, but books are the vehicle. Physical books are vehicle, medium, and method,  a metaphor unto themselves, they are both particle and wave.


I’ve read Time Was by Ian McDonald twice now, both times started out exactly the same: A quick glance at cover art that communicates nothing, a quick skim of the back cover copy, a quick shrug. A few pages in an immediate annoyance with Emmett, who speaks quickly and with little context, a man who isn’t ready to let anyone in. Then I meet Tom, who I immediately feel protective over as I imagine his quiet smile and puppy-dog eyes.  In the moment that Tom’s eyes meet Ben’s, I feel honored just to be in the same room with that beautiful blossoming emotion of their immediate chemistry.


When Emmett stumbles upon a battered and slim volume of poetry at the death of a local bookstore, he find a folded and faded love letter inside.  Entitled “Time Was”, the book has no copyright date, no publisher information. Used bookstores lucky enough to have a copy appear to be under strict instructions to never sell the book, only to always have it on the shelf.


Emmett has grazed the edge of the mystery of Ben and Tom,  two men who were forced to discover a means of communicating across time by leaving letters in specific books in specific bookstores. To sully something beautiful, a particular book was their dead drop. But it’s been decades since the war, why are the instructions still being followed to the letter?


Whoever is writing Doctor Who these days could do a lot worse than writing an episode based on Time Was.

I’ve not read a lot of Ian McDonald, making Time Was a happy surprise.  I have vague memories of enjoying Brasyl (this is why I blog folks! To help me remember what I’ve read!!), and more recently I couldn’t get 50 pages into Luna: New Moon.  Here’s what I’m realizing about McDonald – he never does the same thing twice. Narrative voices are always drastically different, as are worldbuilding styles, prose styles, and how he goes about saying what he feels like saying. Time Was shows this in miniature, in the drastic difference in voice between Tom and Emmett. Not only are their voicees different, but as the POV shifts, so goes the entire feeling of what I’m reading.   Emmett’s chapters are dreary, resigned, untrusting and bordering on nihilistic, whereas Tom’s chapters are a song into the universe, an unabashed passion for the joy of being alive.


This novella is one of those annoying books that requires a reread (or four).  Your first time through, you’ll know something amazing is going on, even if you can’t put your finger on what it is. The next time through, you’ll be reading it through a completely different lens, as you impatiently wait for Emmett to solve the mystery he’s chasing.   It’s so tragic, the closer he gets to solving the mystery, the more likely Ben and Tom will never see each other again. Good thing I can just pick the book up and have the story start all over again, so they can at least have those pages of happiness again. Maybe next time I read this,  I’ll just read those pages where Ben and Tom are together, that way they can be together forever.


Time Was is a strange little novella.  It is a conversation between poetry and physics, a time travel mystery, it is finding happiness by being responsible for helping someone else find happiness, it is love story told via Klein Bottle. It is poetry told via prose, modern disinterest cured by mystery. It is a very hard novella to review!  The narratives and points of view jump around, and I imagine some readers will see this as dreamy and a way to connect with what the characters are experiencing and other readers will simply be straight up annoyed. I admit it took me a short chapter or two to get used to it. Upon reread everything makes much more sense.  Everytime I read this novella, I like it more, I see more of what’s actually happening, I can see more of what’s left unspoken. (I’ve really been getting into that lately, how authors say certain things by leaving them completely off the page)


Have you read Time Was? What did you think of it?  Some reviewers are saying it would have made a better story if given another 50 or 100 pages, do you think novella length was the right length for this particular story and the way McDonald chose to tell it?

2 Responses to "Time Was, by Ian McDonald"

I rated it highly, and really enjoyed McDonald’s writing and how the narrative plays with the theme of time.


I have never read Time Was… but it sounds intriguing!


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