A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley front cover

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s interesting how you can sometimes come to the right book at the wrong time. The first time I read this book, I was in the basement of a dusty university library and I was late for my shift. I skim-read and I did not really get it. I suppose you wouldn’t get anything under such circumstances, not when your mind is elsewhere and the sort of book you’re reading isn’t the sort to want to bring you back. I know that A Traveller In Time doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t seek to be heard; rather it wants you to listen, and sometimes it takes a long while to find the moment where that can occur.

But it does occur, that is the thing with these books; moments happen when you least expect them, and I found a copy of this in a seaside town this week and I thought: it is time that I read this again. Properly. Completely. Not with the sort of half mind that looks elsewhere, but rather my whole attention. And so I did, and I realised that this is a fearlessly well-told story in the manner of something very eternal in British children’s literature; complex, challenging, wildly magical, ferociously melancholic, and rather, utterly good. It is also that rare thing: a classic that feels classic, timeless, a pebble thrown into the pond and felt in books like Charlotte Sometimes; Tom’s Midnight Garden; and the Green Knowe books. The reverberations, endless.

Penelope is visiting family at Thackers; the year is 1934, and somehow – even the text lets it happen in a blink, a sentence – she becomes a traveller in time and part of the 16th century. She can move from one time to the next and back again; a ghost, a dreamer, and whilst in the past, she becomes part of something beyond her control. A plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. It is the sort of deliciously big story that only children’s literature of a certain time and place can do, and Uttley revels in it. Her language is complex, challenging, and big. So big. Everything about this story and its fantastical, grey, magic is so very big.

And it is melancholic, as somebody on Twitter described it to me. It is full of a desperate ache for the inevitability of things; the world turns, people live, people die, and to be a brief part of that world is a painful, brutal gift. It is a gift that nobody would ever return; the preciousness of it. The perfection of it. But it is not easy and it is all the better for it. I have increasingly come to think that those authors who can do this understand the brutality of childhood. The raw truth of it. The way perfection and heartbreak can dance together, so close, so tightly wound. The way a day can be beautiful and then desperate, all at once.

It is a book that will wait for you to be ready to find it. And once you are? It will give you everything.

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