You Don’t Belong Here
Snowbooks, 320 pages
Review: Steve Ironside
Time-travel stories generally fall into two main camps. They’re either a cautionary tale, where the author uses the device to show how a particular set of circumstances could end up in extremis by sending his protagonist into the future; or as a way to demonstrate the value of a past event by visiting it and either becoming bound up in events, or by showing an alternative timeline to contrast the original one against. These practical upshot of this is that stories have a tendency to become somewhat predictable and dare I say, a little dull as a result.
Refreshingly, You Don’t Belong Here doesn’t take either of these approaches, opting instead to wrap the time-travel element up as the McGuffin of a mystery story. The ‘how’ of time-travel isn’t really important; this isn’t that kind of tale. Instead, it’s a story about what the consequences of time travel are for an individual, in this case, a thief called Daniel Faint.
Daniel has stolen an experimental time machine, and has accepted a job as a house-sitter for a couple who live in an out-of-the-way Cumbrian manor house. He does this both to hide himself from the authorities, and also to give him the chance to try the machine out. After all, there’s money to be made from time-travel, and Daniel is sure he can clean up, provided that he can figure out how to make the machine work.
Sadly, things are never as straight-forward as all that. The time machine, it transpires, is somewhat limited in its operation. It can only send you forward in time, and when it’s used, strange events that Daniel cannot explain start to occur in the intervening “black out” periods through which he travels – being suspected of things he didn’t do; being recognised by people he doesn’t know, and so on. Because he’s a stranger in a small, close-knit community, he attracts the attention of local villagers, which becomes even more complicated when an old “friend” turns up looking for him and the machine. As the plot unfolds, Major starts to reveal how all these seemingly disparate elements end up relating to each other, and whether Daniel can deal with the obstacles that have been placed in his way.
Daniel himself ends up seeming a little like Jack Torrence in The Shining – a man stuck in near-isolation, with Forces Beyond Comprehension affecting his perceptions and opinions. He becomes increasingly paranoid and confused, and Major handles those transitions deftly; although you may not necessarily like Daniel as a person, you can’t help but feel sorry for him, as the consequences of the choices that he makes, and his escalating desperation to do something to extricate himself from the situation he’s found himself in becomes ever more obvious.
Indeed, it’s those choices that matter most, and make Daniel relatable – the way that Major builds his character up makes them feel like very natural decisions – there’s nothing that feels out of place, or jars as something that just had to happen in order to move the plot along.
Eventually Daniel is forced to go on the run to get to the root of the conspiracy that seems intent on ruining his life, and it’s here that the pace starts to really pick up driving the plot on to a finale that, while not explosive, is certainly very satisfying.
The book’s characters are in general believable and interesting, although a little stereotypical – from Daniel’s partner-in-crime Jimmy, the oftentimes lovable Irish rogue, to Florence Harrigan, the mystery woman whose husband owns the manor, and whose attitude to Daniel seems to change each time he blacks out.
If this all starts to sound to you a bit like a neo-noir novel, then you’d be correct – Daniel is cynical, motivated initially by greed, and as the story progresses, by the need to save himself from machinations which he cannot control. The storytelling comes mostly as a blend of events and Daniel’s inner voice, and there is also violence and death – although admittedly, most of this occurs “off camera”.
I’ll admit that I did recognise what was going on ahead of the big reveal in the book, but I found that it really didn’t matter to me – this is very much a story where the journey, rather than the destination matters. The fact that you only get some of the story, due to Daniel’s blackouts, means that the direction that the narrative takes is never quite something you can guarantee.
This is not your average time-travel tale, then – well paced, with reveals all the way to the last page. For someone looking for something a little different, I’d recommend picking this up and giving it a go – and whilst this isn’t a book which invites a sequel, I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Tim Major’s work in future, especially if it brings this kind of fresh look to another sub-genre that can suffer from being a little predictable.