“Where does it all begin?” asks the opening line to Deirdre Madden’s Time Past, Time Present and it is the same question I ask myself as I sit down to write this review. Given the novel’s high school setting as ‘adolescent’ is the only way to describe the literary execution of this book.
It’s difficult to try and explain the plot of Time Past, Time Present as nothing really happens. The novel is simply all exposition and not much story. In sum, Fintan Buckley is a divorced, middle-aged man living in Dublin; when he starts to experience states of altered consciousness, he reflects on his past and the past of his family and acquaintances.
The main problem with Time Past, Time Present is that Madden seems to have forgotten the first rule of writing – “show don’t tell”. For example, on page two she lists twenty facts about Fintan; how old he is, that he’s a father, what he does for a living and so on. Information that readers might enjoy finding out via action is handed to them by the author in a long paragraph – a method that might be forgivable from an inexperienced writer, but not quite what we expect from an author of Madden’s experience and reputation.
This approach of “telling” is further evidenced in Madden’s keenness to summarise information, events and imagery: “Fintan says nothing, stumped as to how he might explain to his son the complex of ideas and emotions that the photographs opened up for him. But Niall understands and he laughs.” Or “Now Fintan has it exactly”. As seen in the first quote, there is potential for revealing characterisation and interesting scenes in Madden’s text. However, she constantly opts for the easy way out and gives an abridged version of her characters and events, as in the second quote. Unfortunately, the easy way is always the most boring for a reader.
Everything takes place off-screen. One principal character is attacked in a flashback, the event summarised in simplistic and vague statements such as, “What happened was pure violence” and “Fear. Fear such as [character x] had never known”. Because we don’t witness any experiences or developments of character, we don’t have empathy for them. Everything is told (not shown) through the obscure ‘voice’ of an omnipresent narrator, in the third person, after the fact and in summary: “Just remembering all this makes Fintan feel panicky”. We don’t empathise with Fintan because we don’t see his panic. If this emotion was made relatable – for example through sweating hands, nausea or stumbling over words – then we’d probably feel closer to the characters. Telling is how the book exists as a paradox; there’s almost only exposition in this book but at the same time nothing happens.
Other errors that pop up throughout the book include over-explanations of minor details such as clothing and setting; (in one chapter Madden repeats three times that the characters are in the “room where the television is”), poor syntax and non-sensical phrasing (such as the line: “We all of us look towards…”), and a failure to capture voice and point of view (therefore her characters repeatedly seem out of character).
What’s unfortunate is that Madden introduces plenty of interesting images and ideas that could have led to some tangible connection with the reader. At one point she writes, “…apples have always been a potent fruit for Fintan”. Was this association with apples going to link with the creation myth? Were they significant because of his Irish Catholic upbringing or because they contained a nostalgic memory of his children? Sadly, this imagery is introduced and then immediately abandoned, leaving the notion to become a flat cliché.
Such lines present lost opportunities. No paths are made, no new locations are journeyed to and no maps are created to show explored ground. Time Past, Time Present is simply landfills of exposition.