The laboratory, in Cumbria, was home to four young scientists. Margaret was a baroness turned cosmologist. Lucille had come from the Toxteth slums to make radio waves travel faster than light. Grace – who never gave the same account of her history twice – was an expert in the behaviour of matter. And the last was Barbara: the baby of the group, hair so fair it was nearly white, ruddy-cheeked and naively wholesome. All four women were combining their knowledge in a new, and unique, project.
These are the opening lines of The Psychology of Time Travel, which grabbed me right from the start and would not let me go until the very end. In some respects, this is very much a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin book: it’s about the effects that time travel might have both on people’s worldviews and on their mental health. However, it is also a gripping murder mystery set across three time periods – 1967, 2017, and 2018 – featuring a lot of different (and fascinating) characters. Depending on how you count, this story also contains between one and five romances. It is teeming with plot, but in a way that never takes away from its exploration of the deeper issues at play.
The author of the book, Kate Mascarenhas, is a chartered psychiatrist with a PhD in psychology and literature, and it is very clear that she is drawing on her academic and clinical expertise throughout. For example, one of the problems identified fairly early in the book is that fact that time travel might profoundly disturb a person’s relationship with daylight and sleep. Mascarenhas explores the clinical consequences of this issue with precision. It doesn’t feel cold, or jargon-riddled, but at the same time you can tell that she really knows what she’s talking about. I love reading novels written by people who know their topic inside out, and the effortless way she weaved her knowledge into the book made it a joy to read.
The novel also addresses broader, more theoretical questions – for example, if you could carry on seeing someone you loved long after they died, what effect would that have on the way you viewed the relationship? If you have an institution that is responsible for people in several centuries simultaneously, which era’s laws do you follow? How would being able to travel in time affect a person’s understanding of risks and consequences? These are the big questions that science fiction is perfectly designed to address, and this novel does so beautifully. The narrative is never info-dumpy, and characters don’t (usually) sit around having deep philosophical conversations; where they do, it is earned within the story – two professionals who have to deal with the day-to-day realities of these questions having a practical conversation about work, for example. The genius of the novel is that it never once made me feel like I was being asked to admire someone’s worldbuilding, yet many details of the novel deepened my understanding of the setting being created.
For me, the highlight of the book was Barbara’s character. Barbara’s experiences inside and outside the group of scientists are depicted beautifully, and she is an incredibly engaging character. She is by far the kindest and most thoughtful character in the book. She also has serious mental health problems, and Mascarenhas does not shy away from depicting the effects this has on her family. The issues this poses are explored sensitively and realistically, and while they are important to Barbara’s character they are not her whole story. One of the main point-of-view characters in the book is her adult granddaughter, Ruby, and the close relationship the two have is at the core of the book, especially the earlier chapters. It is both delightful and occasionally challenging in precisely the way that family relationships often are. Barbara is both sweet-natured and steely-determined. I cared about the story, in large part, because of how much I cared about Barbara.
The murder mystery around which the book centres is gripping enough, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it is the highlight of the book. I was certainly surprised by the twists and turns it took, and guessed part but not all of the outcome. Normally, when I read a murder mystery, I am acutely aware that keeping track of the timeline will provide me with vital clues. In this instance, that was so much more complicated that it really kept me on my toes, and I liked the way that more details about the time travel mechanics came out as the plot gradually unfurled. (On a related note, I think “time travelling epidemiology detective” is the job I am most suited to in the whole world, and now I am sad that it doesn’t actually exist).
I can’t recommend The Psychology of Time Travel highly enough. I really hope that Mascarenhas writes more books set in this universe. It doesn’t need a sequel, as the ending is satisfying, but there is certainly scope for a companion novel (or, preferably, several). Either way, I look forward to reading whatever she writes next.
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