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An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

An Ocean of Minutes (2018)

by Thea Lim

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17114109,939 (3.63)20
"In the vein of The Time Traveler's Wife and Station Eleven, a sweeping literary love story about two people who are at once mere weeks and many years apart. America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him, even if it means risking everything. She agrees to a radical plan--time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded laborer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years. But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured. An Ocean of Minutes is a gorgeous and heartbreaking story about the endurance and complexity of human relationships and the cost of holding onto the past--and the price of letting it go"--… (more)
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    Foe by Iain Reid (sturlington)
    sturlington: These are both unusual science fiction novels addressing themes of separation and isolation.

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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
Time travel in a post-apocalyptic world. Centers important issues: immigration, classism, racism, sexism. Also exposes the limits of love.

I definitely was not in the best mindset for reading such a bleak story. But I'm not gonna hold that against the book.
  flying_monkeys | Sep 8, 2019 |
Shortlisted for the Giller Prize 2018.

Wonderful title, terrific premise, disappointing execution. In 1981 a deadly flu pandemic sweeps through the world, causing fear and panic. When her husband Frank is infected, Polly contracts with a company that promises to cure Frank in return for sending her 12 years into the future as an indentured servant. Frank and Polly arrange to meet each other at a specific place, coming back every Saturday in September until they are reunited. But Polly winds up in 1998, not 1993, in a Galveston that is part of the new country of America, cut off from the northern "United States." Her skilled-visa status turns out to provide conditions that are only privileged compared to the dire circumstances in which unskilled workers find themselves, and her boss is a dangerous drunk. Polly's single focus is trying to find Frank, first at their rendezvous and then in more distant locations, but just staying alive and unharmed is her biggest challenge.

The story alternates between flashbacks of Frank and Polly's pre-disaster life in Buffalo and Polly's life in 1998 Galveston. We learn how they met, fell in love, and eventually how they wound up in
Texas (the flu was widespread in the south but not the north of the (original) USA. These sections are useful and help us understand Polly's devotion to Frank, but they weren't as effective as they needed to be. This is supposed to be a love that spans space, time, and the lowest levels of despair, and I didn't quite see it. Polly and Frank are nice people, but Polly's almost split-second decision to take a leap into the unknown to save Frank didn't seem to emerge from a great romance. In an interview I read, Lim said she didn't realize she was writing such a romantic story until her editor pointed it out, and it kind of shows. This is a book (as she observed) about migration and displacement, with the love story accompanying that, rather than a romance set in a time of dystopia-level migration hardships.

Polly may have been a little too every-woman to make this story work for me. I appreciated the idea of such a person being thrown into a world she didn't expect and can't make sense of, and that is what immigration entails, whether it's relatively easy or horrific as it is here. But Polly is also the Queen of Bad Decisions. She never seems to stop and think. Her initial need to get to the meeting point without scoping out the terrain is understandable, since she arrives in September. But she is endlessly credulous, and I never felt as if she was actually taking the time to understand what was going on around her. Her indenture is for 33 months, and she's five years later than she's supposed to be, but she doesn't sit down and work through the ramifications of that.

The world-building is revealed to us and to her in ways that seem plot-motivated rather than organic. In fact, a lot of the storyline requires Idiot Plot moments, i.e., the characters behave like idiots and that advances the plot. Her willingness to trust her boss, even though she is shown to be suspicious of his intentions, makes no sense to me but it moves the story to the next phase. And so on.

The characters are mostly sketches rather than fully realized people. The men are duplicitous. The women are mostly friendly and try to help Polly; I would have liked to see more of Cookie and that gang, and Misty and her group came and went too fast. The things that happen to Polly are mostly because men are awful, and even the good thing that puts the last sequence into motion happens because a man is atoning for bad things. This is not, in the end, a love story. It is a story of survival. Which is worth reading! But the emphasis on the love story part creates a tension between the ideas part of the novel and the emotions part of the novel, one that is never really resolved.

The writing is similarly an uneasy blend of literary and mundane. You get lovely sentences followed by clunky ones. It is, however, a page-turner. You want to know what's going to happen next, how Polly is going to escape her latest peril, whether she's ever going to find Frank and what happens when she does. The time-travel setup as a metaphor for migration is intriguing and works pretty well, and the description of dystopian Galveston, while choppy, frequently creates a compelling atmosphere. But overall, the book is too uncertain of what it's trying to be. ( )
  Sunita_p | May 17, 2019 |
In the 1980s, a flu pandemic is sweeping the world, and also time travel has been invented. Some people opt to travel into the future "to rebuild the world," and Polly is one of these, motivated because it will enable her boyfriend, Frank, to get treatment for the flu. They agree to meet in the future, but she is rerouted to a later year and a radically changed world. The future is a bleak dystopia where Polly is essentially an indentured servant living in horrific conditions in Galveston and helping to create luxury goods for resorts for rich tourists. It's basically a capitalism-run-amok nightmare. As she navigates through this hellscape, Polly holds onto her hope that she will be reunited with Frank. The book has a bittersweet ending that felt very true to me. This was an engaging read and an interesting twist on time travel that I sometimes found unrelentingly depressing. ( )
  sturlington | May 5, 2019 |
This book was chosen for the 2019 Canada Reads longlist but it's been on my radar for quite a while. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed as I sometimes am when a book has received a lot of advance praise. Will it make it to the shortlist? The theme this year is "One Book to Move You" and, for me, this book certainly fulfills that theme. It however is not set in Canada nor does it have any connection to Canada and for Canadian purists that might be a drawback. I will have to wait until Jan 31 to see the books on the short list but I hope this one does if only so I can hear what the panelists think of it.

Polly and Frank are lovers living in Buffalo NY in the 1970s. Polly's parents are dead and she lives with her aunt Donna. Frank has a large extended (and Italian) family. They plan to marry and have children but think they have all the time in the world to do that. Then in 1981 a pandemic hits the world and Polly and Frank are stuck in Texas because travel is forbidden. Frank gets the virus and Polly decides to time travel to 1993 because then Frank can be treated and saved. They make a plan to meet in Galveston in 1993 when Polly is supposed to come through. Except she gets rerouted to 1998 and she can't find any trace of Frank. Galveston suffered greatly in the devastation that followed the pandemic but it is now rebuilding as a tourist destination. Polly's skills as an upholsterer are in demand to refurbish hotels to look like the grand hotels of the past. But life is pretty hard even as a skilled worker and then she loses her skilled worker status. This means she would have to work even longer to repay her bond to the time travelling company. Polly knows Frank survived because he made several inquiries about her before she emerged in 1998 but she can't find him in Texas. Texas and other parts of the south are now a separate country from the rest of the US and there is not much communication between the two. Polly is close to despair many times but something or someone always proves to her that it is worth carrying on. The truly lovely message of this story is that as bad as a situation is there can be hope.

Thea Lim is a wonderful writer and I think, for a first novel, this is an exquisite piece. There's a beautiful piece about Polly and Frank on page 146:
She sleeps with her arm around him, she sleeps with her hand on his thigh. She tucks her hand into his waistband, she sweeps her thumb across his eye. He puts her hand in his pocket. He frees her hair from her collar. He wipes a tear from her nose. He gets the fuzz off her lashes. He does the zip on her dress. He kneads the knot in her spine. He kisses her shoulder, he kisses her temple, he kisses her mouth, he kisses her eyes. He kisses her cheek, he kisses her thigh, he kisses her elbow, he kisses her eyes.

If you read that passage aloud it is just poetry. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jan 20, 2019 |
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