Long ago in days pre-blogging when Bookman worked for Barnes and Noble, he came home with a new book a publicist had foisted on him. He tore through Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest and then thrust it at me and told me I had to read it ASAP. And I did. And I loved it. We were disappointed to discover it was Hegland’s only novel.
The years passed. Lots of books have been read. Now and then I see Into the Forest pop up on someone’s blog and I wonder if Hegland will ever publish another novel. (Ok so it turns out she published a novel called Windfalls in 2004 and Bookman tells me we own a copy. What? How could this be? Why do I not remember anything about this?). So it was a great delight to receive an email from a publicist not long ago asking me if I would like a review copy of a new novel by Jean Hegland. Heck yeah!
Still Time couldn’t be more different than the post-apocalypse of Hegland’s other novel. It is the same thoughtful voice, but the story is about John Wilson, professor of literature and expert on all things Shakespeare. An internationally known and respected scholar, after his fourth wife finally convinces him to retire and he settles down to get to work on what he is sure will be the synthesis of all his years of scholarship, he begins to suffer from dementia.
The novel begins with John’s wife, Sally, helping John get settled into a care facility. John is not so far gone that he is completely unaware of what is happening but he can’t quite grasp it all. He gets confused, his thoughts run off the track, and he retreats to quoting Shakespeare. Sally contacts Miranda, John’s estranged daughter from his second marriage, and after much misgiving, Miranda makes the long drive to visit the father she has not seen in ten years.
The estrangement happened when Miranda was seventeen. John and his third wife brought Miranda along to London with them where John was to give the keynote address at the international Shakespeare conference. After years of playing long distance dad, he was trying to make amends but his ineptitude and a jealous wife only serve to make the sullen teenager even more difficult. The night before his big speech, he and his wife go out to attend a play but Miranda stays in. She gets bored and decides to go for a walk. She gets a little lost and then she meets some young men who take her to a pub, get her really drunk, take her back to their place and then rape her.
When John returns from the play to find Miranda gone he doesn’t immediately worry. He is instead angry. As the hours pass and she still does not return he becomes even more angry and instead of worrying that something bad might have happened he decides Miranda is doing this on purpose. After being up most of the night he finally calls the police. In the morning she still has not been found and, still believing she is doing this on purpose, he rushes off to give his speech only to discover just before going on stage that he has forgotten to bring the text of his speech with him. He has to wing it and his anger and frustration over his daughter result in a very bad speech. The highlight of his career has been ruined and it is all his daughter’s fault.
Miranda is eventually found wandering dazed in Trafalgar Square but she is so confused about what happened to her she only tells the police she got lost. When the police bring her to the hotel John is furious and immediately makes Miranda pack her suitcase and sends her home.
Still Time is a father and daughter reconciliation story that pivots around the events in London. Miranda was never able to tell her father what happened and he was never able to forgive her for ruining his speech. Both have wanted to make up but neither has been able to get past what happened. When Miranda shows up at the care facility, John doesn’t know who she is. She seems really familiar. When she says she is his daughter he can’t quite match the memory of the purple-haired seventeen-year-old, to the young woman speaking to him.
The story is told from both Miranda’s and John’s point of view with the majority of it being inside John’s head. This makes for a pretty interesting narrative. The present is so often very confusing to John that he is constantly slipping back into old memories of his childhood, of his daughter, his career. A nurse will say something to him and he will quote Shakespeare and then drift off into thinking about the play it is from, Romeo and Juliet, Winter’s Tale, King Lear. John’s narrative is often dreamlike, unmoored from the present, associative and drifting. He loses his sense of time passing and so do we. One day it is autumn and the next day it is early spring.
The refrain of “forgive and forget” runs throughout the novel as does the concept of “understanding.” With John in the clutches of dementia, these ideas take on interesting meanings. The ideas are woven throughout Shakespeare as well and Shakespeare is woven throughout the novel. From John first reading Shakespeare as a teen, to a part of a lecture, to quotes, and quite a bit of ruminating over pieces of various plays, if you don’t like Shakespeare you will not find much to like in this book.
Still Time is a sad story but not a depressing one. John is not dead at the end so you can rest easy on that. I guess you could say it has a happy ending, at the very least it is a satisfying one. I thought it daring to tell so much of the story through John’s point of view and for the most part it works really well. It’s not a page turner, but a quiet story about forgiveness, misunderstanding and coming to terms with the past and present while there is still time.