The Thief of Time (2000): John Boyne


I’m really not doing very well on the blog-writing front at the moment. In my defence, it has been a dramatic year so far. We nearly sold our flat, nearly bought a house, and then had it all fall through at the last minute. For over a month, I was so busy with estate agents, conveyancers and the Rightmove website that I barely picked up a book, but fortunately all that is on hold for a while. There is some very happy news too: we recently got engaged, and so there’s wedding planning to be done. While trying to form opinions on stationery and flowers, I’m also trying not to lose myself in a pink-saturated Pinterest feed, never to be seen again. As you can imagine, this emotional roller-coaster has disrupted my reading plans. That ambition I had, at the start of lockdown, to finally get beyond the second volume of Proust? Hasn’t happened. However, I have read a variety of entertaining books in recent weeks, ranging from the fabulous sci-fi-necromantic romp that is Gideon the Ninth, to Dolly Alderton’s surprisingly moving and relatable Everything I Know About Love. For the last couple of days – I’m rather ashamed to admit it – I’ve been absorbed in Lady Colin Campbell’s phenomenally gossipy Meghan and Harry: The Real Story, which has provoked numerous exclamations of, “She didn’t!” Please don’t judge me. But I want to start on slightly more conventional ground, with John Boyne’s The Thief of Time – a book which gave me a certain sense of déjà vu.

Matthieu Zela has been many things. He has been a stable groom, a theatre architect and the millionaire owner of a cable TV channel. He has rubbed shoulders with the stars in Hollywood and picked pockets for a living in Dover. He is also, when this novel starts, 256 years old. Having been born in Paris in 1743, Matthieu flees for England at the age of fifteen after watching his mother die at the hands of his brutish stepfather. With him, he takes his half-brother Tomas. Now, two centuries later, Matthieu is finally taking stock of his life. He has been wildly successful, even if, along the way, he has loved and lost too many people. Among the lost are a whole series of Thomases and Toms, descendants of the first ill-fated Tomas, each of whom seems destined to flail briefly in the world and then, as soon as they have fathered the next generation, to die ignominiously. The current Tommy, a heartthrob actor in a popular TV soap, seems destined to repeat this lamentable pattern, and yet Matthieu is beginning to wonder: what if he stepped in? What if he actually tried to save this Tommy, and take control over the cycle of their intertwined existences?

I mentioned déjà vu, and some of you may already have realised that the concept is almost identical to that in Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time (published in 2017). When I reviewed the latter book, I was vaguely aware of Boyne’s novel and noted the similarities that I knew of at the time. For me, Haig’s novel had issues: his protagonist (ironically named Tom) spent far too long moping around for my liking, and I hoped that Boyne’s Matthieu would relish his existence a little more. He does, and Matthieu has a detached sophistication that rings true for a man who is, to all intents and purposes, immortal. The finer details of their conditions differ: Haig’s Tom is able to father children, whereas Matthieu is not: despite a series of wives, he has no progeny of his own, and his existence is tightly bound to that of the doomed ‘Thomases’. In How To Stop Time, Tom’s long life is specified as a medical condition, shared by a handful of others around the world, which gives him a kind of support network. We never really learn what caused Matthieu to stop aging in 1793 or 1794 – although Boyne suggests that there may be a slightly mystical cause. After all, this date coincides with the unfortunate death of the second Tom (Matthieu’s nephew), which seems to cement their reputation for headstrong lives and early demises. Does this also cement Matthieu’s own fate? It seems significant, to me, that his compassion to the modern Tommy seems to be the one thing that can break both their cycles, and offer both of them the possibility of redemption.

This was Boyne’s first novel, and it’s certainly a conceptual tour-de-force. The plot dances back and forth through time, interweaving different periods of Matthieu’s life as we gradually learn more about the various Thomases, and the lovely Dominique – perhaps his one true love. Although the prose is masterful, as ever with Boyne, I couldn’t help feeling that this is my least favourite of his books I’ve read so far. I can’t put my finger on why that should be – is it, perhaps, that he’s still finding his feet as an author? Is it that I never quite felt able to warm to Matthieu, whose detachment can easily come across as indifference? Or is it that there were conceptual holes – how has Matthieu, despite having wives and a series of nephews, not to mention high-powered jobs, managed to avoid exposure? There’s just something there which isn’t quite satisfying – although, in direct comparison with How To Stop Time, I have to say that I found Boyne’s the more satisfying, more commanding novel.

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6 thoughts on “The Thief of Time (2000): John Boyne

  1. janekillingbeck1 says:

    Heh congratulations If you want a wedding celebrant I am one –
    Not sure your review will entice me to read this book though I like his other work. If you want a long and unusual read, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset set in 14th century Norway and recounting a womans life in great and rteflective detail is surprisingly amazing – she won the nobel prize for it in 1928 – wh knew. I am on page 730……..It is entering a magical world _ i Now am determined to visit Norway .

  2. Helen says:

    Congratulations on your engagement! With so much else going on I think it’s understandable that you haven’t had much time for reading or blogging. This is my least favourite John Boyne novel too and I was disappointed that we were never given an explanation for Matthieu’s condition!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you Helen! I wondered if perhaps I was being too demanding in wanting an explicit explanation – but the hints about a moral-mystical cause are so slight that perhaps a bit more clarification would have been helpful 😉 And, moreover, I think Boyne suffers from being one of those writers who is normally so good that one has a higher expectation of him even at a baseline level!

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