It is Christmas 2024 and Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is a man with nothing to lose. His wife and children are dead, killed in a road accident just a few months before. So when Sally McCluskey, his eccentric and difficult to dislike (or ignore) old Professor, summons him to Cambridge to spend the holidays with her, to talk about her latest project, he has little reason to say no. What if, she asks him, you could go back in time and change history, which piece of history would you put to rights? This is the question that has been handed down the line of Masters of Trinity College for the longest of times. McCluskey is now Master and it is at this time that the question can finally be answered.
A door to the past is about to open. Hugh Stanton, an adventurer and ex-military man with nothing to keep him in the present and nothing to look forward to in the future, is ideally placed and skilled to step through that door and to prevent one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century – the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his Duchess in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
This, then, is where Ben Elton takes us in his new thriller, Time and Time Again. I have also given you just the barest of bones because this book is packed to the rafters with surprises (some of them are belters) and much of its pleasure derives from its shocks. The premise might sound rather familiar – it did make me think of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as well as Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, plus, in a commemorative year that resonates with the legacy of 1914, the premise of Time and Time Again might appear on the face of it too neat. But after the fewest of pages, it became entirely clear to me that Time and Time Again would defy all my expectations. Ben Elton has taken a popular premise and made it his own in the same way that he has done something wonderful with the tried and tested timeslip genre. Two Brothers was one of my very favourite reads of 2013 – Time and Time Again is every bit as striking and memorable.
Ben Elton has a strong sense of the burden of history and it is as apparent in Time and Time Again as it was in Two Brothers, albeit this time we are touching on a different war. With the benefit of hindsight, both ours and Hugh’s, the significance of the smallest detail in Hugh’s journey in the past is felt so strongly. The historical details and settings are meticulous and vivid. Moving through history, Hugh tries to stay aloof, to keep clear his mission, but the past slowly brings Hugh back to life, he starts to find its colour, reassured that his own past is now eradicated, the future unwritten.
There are so many conundrums in this clever novel that a reader needs some wits about them. Arguably, nothing is easier or harder than to change history and it’s not long before Hugh is tied up in his very own Gordion Knot. But while this is intellectually enjoyable and teasing, Time and Time Again also contains some simpler pleasures, not least in the character of Irish suffragette Bernaette ‘Bernie’ Burdette who is an absolute delight. Likewise, there is humour, especially in the shape of Professor McClusky who gets most of the good lines and enjoys telling them. Above all else, this novel sparkles with such a powerful, all pervasive love of the past and a deep sense of foreboding for what might happen if people should think themselves foolish enough to be able to play with it.
Without doubt, Ben Elton is one of the most exciting authors about. I was so excited when I learned about Time and Time Again and I am delighted, but not surprised, to have found it marvellous.