Tuesday, September 27

What Time Is Love? by Holly Williams review – soulmates after all these years | fiction

When Violet and Albert first meet they’re mutually smitten. It’s all stolen glances, burning cheeks and churning desire with one major twist: their initial encounter takes place in 1947, then again in 1967, and once more in 1987. On each occasion they both are just 20 years old.

Despite some tantalizing intimations of deja vu, journalist Holly Williams’s highly engaging debut is concerned less with supernatural solutions than with real-world problems, so any reader wondering how these characters manage to be reborn every couple of decades is destined to be frustrated. Instead, the shifting eras of the novel’s backdrop shape three distinct sections that combine the fizz of a romance with an earnest inquiry into the vastly changing (in some respects at least) fortunes of women in the second half of the 20th century, along with questions. of class and privilege, and a glimpse into the history of British socialism.

In each, Violet is working class and Welsh, raised with brothers in a small terrace cottage in Abergavenny. Smart and stubborn, she has a “bobbly” nose and a habit of lifting her chin to toss her dark hair. In the 40s, when she’s known as Lettie, she meets “Bertie” through her sister de ella, a girl she worked alongside as a telegraphist in London during the war. Back home, it’s made clear that a job in the local post office is to be the limit of her ambitions. In the 60s she’s Vi, and she has got herself to Sheffield University where “Al” is a fellow student, the pair of them graduating to a squat in London. In the 80s, she’s studying English at Bristol, and they connect at a rave in a field.

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Albert is known briefly as Bez there, but throughout, the core details of his biography, the polar opposite of Violet’s, remain unchanged: the family piled up in Yorkshire, the frustrated mother who drinks too much, the father whose Conservative (very much with a capital “C”) politics are radically at odds with his own. Back in the 40s, lanky, disheveled Albert is an Oxford undergrad. In the 60s he becomes a radical journalist in San Francisco, experimenting with hallucinogens and free love. And in the 80s, when it’s Violet who’ll be the writer – and indeed politico – he’s an eco-activist.

Right person, wrong time is the binding notion, but while that romantic staple usually points to logistical challenges such as distance or even an inconvenient spouse, here it’s more profound. The “time” is the cultural moment in which Violet and Albert come of age; in each decade it sets the course of their relationship, demonstrating just how much our lives’ trajectories are determined by external forces.

The couple zestfully embrace the trappings of each era, so much so that the period settings can feel a bit overstated, like Violet’s oft-mentioned elongated vowels. It’s fun, though, clocking the more superficial signifiers of each decade, from fashion to lingo, as well as spotting recurring objects such as a copy of Sons and Lovers.

There is never any doubt that Violet and Albert are soulmates (have I mentioned that they share a birthday?), and Williams has an invigorating way of switching between their viewpoints mid-scene, underscoring their togetherness even as she highlights the moments at which their experience diverges. What makes her novel so interesting is that while readers will root for the characters as a couple, their struggles as individuals make them more endearing still.


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