Two British soldiers during World War II fall into a forbidden love that continues after their disappearance across time, during which they leave each other clues in books of poetry that are ultimately found by narrator Emmett.
Time Was begins as an intriguing mystery, turns into a kind of time-travel tale and ends up as a sensitive and gracefully written romance stretching over decades. McDonald is admired for his detailed multicultural futures and intricate plotting, but he can be one of the field’s more elegant stylists as well ... surprisingly moving ending.
McDonald’s...gift for storytelling is on full display as he captures the emotional nuances of a decades-long love while exploring issues of military and scientific might and the state of the contemporary book industry. The very British references and regionalisms will appeal to even the most sf-averse Anglophiles, especially those who enjoy Netflix’s Black Mirror.
Time Was is a beautifully written piece of work, full of pathos and engaged in a slantwise dialogue with the power of words to affect and to endure, richly characterised and elegantly structured as so much of McDonald’s work is—but it still leaves me oddly cold. Cold, too, because one of the themes running through it is the tension between connection and loneliness, and Time Was concludes on tragedy revealed and on an immanent dislocation. It feels like a conclusion that presents connection as precarious and fleeting, loss as inevitable: a conclusion in keeping with Time Was’s melancholic mood, but not the emotional experience I really prefer. That said, it is very well put together, and gorgeously written.