Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar ‘Waldy’ Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back—a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself.
Released in February of this year, John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents is a story about a family’s obsession with the nature of time. Narratively framed by Waldy Tolliver, who has found himself “exiled from time,” the novel tells the history of numerous generations of his family as written by him, his intended audience being his former lover Mrs. Haven.
The Lost Time Accidents, or more simply “the Accidents,” are cryptic words on the final page of notes Waldy’s great-grandfather Ottokar Toula wrote on the day he died, a day he supposedly learned something revolutionary about time itself. This final page was the only one recovered, propelling his sons and their descendants down a path to understand what he’d discovered.
Admittedly, what first attracted me to this novel was that it’s about time travel, specifically the predicament Waldy finds himself in. What surprised and interested me more so, upon further reading, is that it’s not so much a novel about literal time travel as it is the idea of it. While it’s hard to pin down the novel’s genre, I found that while it could be called science fiction, it’s more fiction about science. Discussions of scientific theory are woven throughout, such as the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, the results of which eventually led to the theory of special relativity.
The credibility of the Accidents, whatever they’re supposed to be, is nebulous in itself. Characters often seem to be eerily at the cusp of some fundamental secret of the universe in their understanding of it, or complete madness. Despite this, hypotheses around the Accidents incorporate legitimate scientific theories — some no longer considered credible — and even find rivals in modern understandings of science. Lengths were taken to make the idea of the Accidents, though niche in the story, feel involved with actual scientific discourse, rather than simply treating it as a concept for a sci-fi story, such as it could be.
The novel pokes fun at the science fiction genre a little through Orson, Waldy’s father, who wrote numerous smutty pulp stories that were more fixated on premise than actual science. Waldy even points out how his predicament outside of time reminds him of his father’s writing, where the novel would focus purely on the character isolated in a strange sci-fi scenario. Funnily enough, The Lost Time Accidents is arguably just that, only with a lot more depth thanks to its narrative frame.
Being a generational story, the narrative involves a robust cast of characters who all approach their fixation on the Accidents in a different way, be they physicists, a war criminal, eccentrics, or writers. We get to know who they are as people, the drama of their lives, and how they come to fit into the legacy of the Accidents, which plagues their family. While the science was an important part of the story for me, the heart of it all was the interplay between family members and their struggle to keep themselves together in the wake of this generational obsession.
In keeping with the story’s notions of nonlinear time, the narrative jumps between accounts of the past, Waldy’s more recent history with Mrs. Haven, and the “present” situation of his predicament. Although I did not find this to be out of place, the novel got to be fatiguing after a point when this format was combined with the transitions to new casts of characters with each generation. The most interesting characters to me were Ottokar’s sons, Kaspar and Waldemar, their stories spanning from the dawn of the 20th century to after the second World War.
I was still invested in the subsequent generations, but the novel had already reached its highest point for me. At times progress started to feel too slow, and the introduction and expansion of new characters felt less and less interesting. I became increasingly eager for a resolution, for everything to amount to something significant, but the story was taking its time.
Complaints aside, I do think The Lost Time Accidents is a really good novel, definitely worth checking out if you have an interest in science and history. The early parts of the novel are the most steeped in the political climate of the times, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the world as it changes alongside the characters as the story progresses. The novel marries science fiction with a core of more traditional fiction in a way that will captivate readers interested in either approach.