This novel was great fun from start to finish. Ali McNamara does something quite tricky: she puts a new spin on the time travel story. While most transtemporal tales might concentrate on the possibilities of accidentally or purposefully changing history, and then set about tying the reader up in knots of paradox, we get something a bit different here. Plus, we get a romantic story that spans decades all the way back to the 1960s, with a few surprising twists along the way.
Our setting is the historical King’s Road in Chelsea, and our focus is mostly on what sounds like the best music shop in the world, ‘Groovy Records’, which belongs to the intriguing George – a character who seems to know more than he ought to about what our heroine Jo-Jo is going through. Poor Jo-Jo is propelled from era to era, getting knocked over by the same white sports car on a zebra crossing and getting zapped into the past each time. She wakes up unharmed, wearing a different outfit each time, surrounded by well-meaning strangers and, each time, she finds George and the record shop at the centre of her world. And she also bumps into new iterations of her closest friends, living different lives, depending on the decade – the most important being love-interest Harry, who we see as young blue-haired punk, hard-hearted yuppie businessman and various other incarnations through time.
It’s all very mysterious, but the kindly George feeds her clues as to what is going on. He tells her that these lives are like chapters in a book, pressed together, almost touching, but running along like parallel roads-not-taken. Also, as Jo-Jo gets drawn into the lives around her in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, she finds that she has a job to do in each one; a mission to accomplish – whether it’s helping out her closest friends or making huge changes to the lives of people she meets – she finds a way each time to set them back on track, sometimes more by accident than design.
At the same time she discovers fellow travelers in time. This is one of the book’s most fascinating ideas: that sometimes, the lonely, haunted-seeming characters she comes across turn out to be people like her. People who have been jolted out of their chronological lives and been sent, by sudden death or accident, into a different era. I loved the scene, late on in the book, with drag queen Billy at the Take That concert in 1994. He’s happy to be lost ten years in his past because he can’t envision a future without his favourite band. Shouting over the noise, Jo-Jo is happy to tell him about Take That’s 2005 reunion.
The book is all about the way that pop music is threaded through our lives and memories. It’s one of the ways we remember where we were and who we were. Since the 1960s it’s been a way for successive generations to chart our lives and anchor ourselves in the now, and this is what Jo-Jo finds herself doing literally, as the climax of the book takes her on a hunt for the truth to Liverpool and the grave of Eleanor Rigby herself, just in time to resolve the mystery and the romance plot of this long, generous, unusual novel.