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BOOK REVIEW: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

| 13 September 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

Head of Zeus
August 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

General Fiction / Speculative Fiction



1967: Four female scientists invent a time-travel machine. They are on the cusp of fame: the pioneers who opened the world to new possibilities. But then one of them suffers a breakdown and puts the whole project in peril.

Her jaw was working up and down again. The crowd roaring in her head had reached a crescendo. ‘Hereford is my name. People have names when they matter. We picked a name for our rabbit because he is pious, I mean a pioneer. I am a pioneer; and I won’t be dissected, not for anyone! Not for you, Mr Salmon Pink Pate, Mr Cat Would Eat You All Up. I won’t be dissected, or neglected, or resurrected!’

2017: Ruby knows her beloved Granny Bee was a pioneer, but they never talk about the past. Though time travel is now big business, Bee has never been part of it. Then they receive a message from the future–a newspaper clipping reporting the mysterious death of an elderly lady.

Ruby craned forward to look. The inquest was to be held in February 2018, and concerned the death of a woman in her eighties. The space where the victim’s name should be read Undisclosed. But the most intriguing information was the date of death: 6 January 2018. This woman wouldn’t die for another five months.
‘This is from the future?’ Ruby asked.
‘Looks like it.’

2018: When Odette discovered the body, she went into shock. Blood everywhere, bullet wounds, flesh. But when the inquest fails to answer any of her questions, Odette is frustrated. Who is this dead woman that haunts her dreams? And why is everyone determined to cover up her murder?

During her archaeology degree she’d handled human skeletons. That hadn’t prepared her for the violence of this death. The rotting flesh reminded her, as dry bones could not, that she too was made from fat and lymph and sinew. Humanity was reduced to nothing more than briefly animated meat. Odette stared and stared at the broken body. How could anyone wreak such damage?




The blurb of this book gives all the information one technically needs to know for the foundation of the story, but unfortunately it reveals none of the feels. Maybe this is due in part to this reviewer’s own preconceived notions, but the story revealed in the telling was even better than I was hoping for based on that brief introduction.

The Psychology of Time Travel is the perfect name for this book, as it is a time travel story, yes, but it also deals with the ways in which time travel might change a person, and how it might worsen any mental health issues they’re predisposed to, or encourage the development of others due to the internal culture of the group. (Trigger warning, this book features brief explorations of self-harm, OCD, and eating disorders.)

In 1983, OCD was not a term in layman’s usage, but Margaret had heard it used by travellers from the near future.
‘Hand-washing?’ she said. ‘Checking the door is locked, that kind of thing?’
‘Yes,’ said Siobhan cautiously. ‘But there’s more to it than that. A person with OCD usually feels an excess of responsibility. All of us experience passing worries about whether we turned the oven off, but the person with OCD might imagine a disastrous gas explosion, involving fatalities, injuries, or loss of home, for which she is solely culpable. Checking provides relief from anxiety, but the relief wears off, so the person checks again, then again, eventually developing a ritual even if she’s aware her behaviour is illogical.’
Extraordinary, Margaret thought. How glad she was not to have that weakness of mind. ‘And this is true for Veronica?’
‘In her case, she repeatedly worries that she’s killed a person during one of her time travel trips and somehow forgotten her involvement.’
‘I’m frightened that I’ve killed my grandchild,’ Veronica added. ‘I’m twenty-eight, for Pete’s sake.’

As someone with OCD, this reviewer found it rather interesting to see this real-world issue in a speculative context.

As with any good time travel story, there is a lot of hopping back and forth between the aforementioned years, but for the most part this is not too confusing, and readers can find themselves quite invested without paying too much attention to the dates the the start of a new chapter. As each chapter unfolds, readers are privy to a little bit more of the puzzle as the mystery unfolds in front of them, with a few “aha!” moments when things from one timeline show up in another.

There are various elements of mystery here, both on a human level and in terms of the murder that wants to be solved. The murder, while interesting, was not the most unusual or unexpected element of this story, but they way it was investigated was definitely intriguing.

Ruby starts investigating in 2017, before the murder has even taken place, worrying that it is her grandmother’s body found in 2018. Odette starts investigating in 2018, after the crime was committed (and after being treated for shock by Dr Ruby Rebello, who did not disclose her connection to the case), by joining the agency that seems to be at the centre of the mystery.

She felt badly situated, for a spy. Not only did she know nothing about her colleagues, they might know things about her future she didn’t. The imbalance troubled her.

There are so many elements to this story that it’s difficult to discuss them all while maintaining the mystery that a time travel novel reveals in its own special way, but the three main factors for this reader were:

The exploration and solving of a crime that is in the past, yet to come, and currently taking place all at once.

The ways in which time travel might affect a person emotionally, whether it be mental health issues or a strange disconnect with death.

‘Have you met any veteran time travellers?’
Ruby shook her head.
Grace clasped Ruby’s hands across the table and looked at her intently. For a moment Ruby thought Grace was going to kiss her.
‘Believe me,’ Grace said. ‘Old time travellers are an odd bunch. They’re all so strange about death. It’s like the longer you time travel, the more cavalier you get about people dying.’

When you’re a time traveller, the people you love die, and you carry on seeing them, so their death stops making a difference to you. The only death that will ever change things is your own.

And the little quirks of time travel that can’t really be explained, or which exist outside of the normal rules.

Pardesi’s short introduction explained that time travellers’ slang is associated with the Conclave’s communal areas – the dorms; the break rooms. These are the places where travellers wait to be debriefed. Their slang is immune to change, making it interesting to linguists. Introducing ‘new’ words is impossible in such a context. A word may be new to an individual time traveller, particularly if she’s inexperienced in the field. But she’ll take it back to her own period, which may pre- or post-date the period where she heard it, and it can no longer be associated with usage in a given year or decade or century.

Policing people who can move between periods with different laws is complex,’ Fay said. ‘So the Conclave has its own governing body, and legislation, to regulate the conduct of time travellers. This constant, stable legislation takes precedence over the relatively changeable English and Welsh law.’
‘But I’m English,’ Veronica said. ‘And we are in England.’
‘No, love. You’re in the Conclave. Think of us as an embassy – a little part of another country, right in the middle of London. And here, workers have no legal protections.’

They’re all examples of acausal matter. Or what some physicists call “genies” – because they appear out of nowhere.’
‘What d’you mean, nowhere?’
‘One of my future selves gave these to me, wrapped in a plastic bag. Eventually I’ll give them to a past me. The objects only exist in that loop. They aren’t made by anyone. They just exist.’

All in all this is an engaging and fun read with a blend of genres and ideas that is just that little bit different from areas explored previously, and it’s bound to be a hit with anyone interested in time travel, psychology, and mystery. The book features a lot of women in leading roles and positions of power and shows a wide range of personalities within the scope of the story, which is another way in which this story sets itself apart from a lot of time travel novels.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Mascarenhas’s future works.



Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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