What would you do if you were trapped outside of time? Exploring this very predicament, John Wray’s new novel The Lost Time Accidents is a madcap journey through physics and the 20th century. It’s an ambitious story that sometimes gets wrapped up in itself, but the result is a thrilling quest through time and space.
Waldy Tolliver is heir to a mystery that has plagued his family for decades. In the early 20th century, Waldy’s great-grandfather was killed in a car accident while working to master time itself, leaving his sons Kaspar and Waldemar to grapple with the evidence of time travel he left behind. The brothers are torn apart when Waldemar’s obsessive fascination with the so-called “Lost Time Accidents” leads him to the Nazi Party, while Kaspar’s explorations bring him to the United States with his young family.
The novel opens with Waldy finding himself “excused from time” in his aunt’s Harlem apartment. He takes the opportunity to work through his family’s troubled history and his own heartbreak in the wake of an affair with Mrs. Haven, to whom he addresses the massive manuscript he is compiling. Alternating between his genealogy, his past memories and the exploration of his own space, Waldy struggles to find a way back into the timestream—only to learn that he might not be alone in the fourth dimension.
“Chronology is an illusion, if not a deliberate lie.” This line serves as shorthand for the baffling physics used to explain the science that drives the story. For a large portion of the book, time travel itself isn’t quite the focus. Although Waldy is trapped in time, it first appears that this a possible oversight on his part, as if the clocks are stuck and he’s too wrapped up in his family’s obsession with time to see it. There’s a slow-burn to the science fiction elements of the story, built from idiosyncratic family quirk to bonafide conspiracy.
Wray deftly blends philosophy and science with history and fiction to create a narrative that’s firmly situated in time—even as the characters try to shake themselves loose from the timestream. Frequent references to Einstein, an unwitting rival of the Tolliver family, particularly have a grounding effect on the novel. From the high salons of Vienna to the pulpy sci-fi of the 1960s, the book weaves facets of the study of time together in a way that’s engaging, fun and deliciously madcap.
The Lost Time Accidents hides weaknesses, though. Some characters feel flat, and the story’s quirkiness can become grating. The science doesn’t make sense at times, and anyone without a firm grasp of physics will likely trip over the jargon. At 500 pages, the book is a dense read, too, with multiple twists across time and space that can feel disorienting.
But the story is thrilling, full of intrigue and laced with a love story that takes hairpin turns. Although the book’s complexity makes it impossible to fathom how Wray kept the threads together while writing, it’s obvious that he had a fantastic experience while constructing this family saga. It’s not a light read, but if the reader can keep from getting tripped up in the details and let the story sweep them away, The Lost Time Accidents proves to be a delightful escape.