The Thief of Time
John Boyne has written a quietly profound tale about a middle-aged man who, inexplicably, stops aging. Matthieu Zela, born in 1743, flees Paris with his half-brother after his stepfather murders his mother. He survives as a pickpocket in Dover, but after 256 years, he has become a wealthy owner of a satellite television broadcasting station. Jumping around in time, Matthieu fills the reader in on his long and varied life, but most of the anecdotes concern his stepbrother, Thomas, and Thomas’s children. For the “Thomases,” as Matthieu calls them, are stuck in a seemingly unbreakable cycle: They tend to go bad and die young. One is guillotined in the French Revolution, another dies in a duel in Italy, a third is killed during a bank robbery. Furthermore, each Tom tends to die right before the birth of the next Tom. As Matthieu prepares for the third century of his life, he is determined to break the cycle with the current “nephew,” an insolent drug-addled soap opera star with an ominously pregnant girlfriend.
Matthieu Zela is a wonderful character. He’s a man of dry wit and a deep understanding of human nature, a man who has avoided growing impatient with the unchanging ways of the world, a man who has, in fact, adapted to his immortality. No novel is perfect: Some of the anecdotes feel only vaguely thematically relevant, and the writer ducks a bit, at the end, but The Thief of Time is one of the finest reads this reviewer has enjoyed in quite a while. It’s gripping without cliffhangers, philosophically deep without angst, honest and wise and absolutely charming. Bravo to Mr. Boyne—and when’s the next book?