Toronto resident Thea Lim’s debut novel is a dystopian time-travel story that defies genre conventions by concentrating on the interpersonal consequences of its plot. But somewhere along the line the narrative falls flat: despite the author’s best attempts, the reader feels no attachment to the characters. As a result, it’s difficult to root for their success.
Here’s what we know about the dystopian world that serves as the setting for An Ocean of Minutes: a fatal virus has infected numerous Americans. A cure has been invented in the future and if loved ones and family members agree to travel forward in time, the state will fund the treatment for those left behind. The trade-off is tough, though. People who agree to travel to the future must work in subpar conditions cleaning up the destruction the virus has left in its aftermath.
Slingshot into the future, the main character, Polly, makes plans to meet up with her partner, Frank, at a specific time and place. For her, no time has passed. But he has been infected with the virus and therefore left behind; he must find a way to stay alive for 12 long years before eventually meeting up with his beloved when the future becomes the present. Of course Polly’s scheme fails and she spends the rest of the novel trying to make her way back to Frank.
Flashbacks provide a deeper look at the couple, yet we never feel close to them. Despite Lim’s facility with truly creative and original turns of phrase (“Sweat pools in the diamond made by the meeting of their chests”), the novel lacks the visual imagery that would have allowed the reader to better understand the darkness of the dystopian future world. The abstract metaphors and descriptions are a hindrance to visualizing the setting and characters, in turn making it difficult to become invested in the plot.
And yet, the novel almost redeems itself with its ending, which is delightful in its realistic approach to how a relationship under this kind of strain would unfold. The conclusion gives readers not necessarily what they want but what the book needs.