Tomorrow, When I Was Young by Julie Travis.
Eibonvale Press, hb, £7.60
Reviewed by Rima Devereaux
A city where the dead go about their ordinary lives, a mysterious Golden Sea Captain, a journey through space and time, a discovering of one’s multicultural past, a hymn to self-realization and an escape from the mundane. This highly unusual, beautifully written and unforgettable novella is all these things.
Zanders finds herself aboard a strange three-masted clipper ship with a ghost crew that she can’t see. She realizes very quickly that the Golden Sea Captain is a woman dressed as a man. Hints are dropped throughout about how Zanders feels drawn to the Captain, but the ending is still a surprise. The gender ambiguity of the mysterious Captain reminded me of the Fool in Robin Hobb – Travis is similarly concerned with sexual identity, explored through the use of fantasy tropes.
Zanders’ sudden transportation to this new world of the past is an awakening in other ways too. Her loved ones have all died, she has sold most of her belongings and she is disabled by having had several vertebrae crushed. But aboard the ship, she is no longer disabled. We don’t actually learn much about her former life (which is in the future, as Travis takes pains to point out), except that her grandmother was Peruvian. In the fantasy world she finds herself in, her aim is to question people about her grandmother’s whereabouts, beginning, naturally enough, in the city of the dead.
Another reminder of Robin Hobb, this time of the liveships, is the fact that the figurehead comes to life and fights for the ship. But these nods don’t make the novella derivative – it has its own powerful and lyrical beauty, fusing an exploration of sexual and cultural identity with a journey in space and time.
Travis underlines the care the Captain takes to play the part he has adopted, and by implication pinpoints the sharp and rigid definition of gender roles in the past she is portraying. The ship is a space where things are more fluid and malleable. The same is true of Zanders’ Peruvian grandmother – the ship allows a meeting that is impossible in our world, a meeting that is a genuine communion. It shows how much is lost in families of mixed heritage where a life is reduced to a bundle of old photographs given to Zanders by her aunt. The book’s tender fantasy highlights the poignancy of these themes in a way that realism can struggle to.
The divide between waking and dreaming, past and present, and past and future, are other dualisms that the novel collapses. What we are is all about recollection and perception. But the book also shows the strong desire many of us have for the past to become real to us, a living thing, more than memory, to paraphrase The Lord of the Rings.