Cover Image: Time Shelter

Time Shelter

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Member Reviews

It's a weird book and I can't say if loved or hated it. I can say it's one of those book that makes you think and like for the style of writing.
I recommend it if you like something very well written and unusual.
Many thanks to the publisher for this arc, all opinions are mine

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I have tried three times to read this, but have been unable to get into it. However it has won the International Booker so my struggles are irrelevant. I will have no troubles selling this. It must be good, even if I personally don't get on with it.

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Time Shelter is thought provoking and really quite clever - a testament on the sense of nostalgia we carry around with us, notably towards the years of our youth, or the ‘golden’ years of our countries, and a warning against trying to recapture that.

The novel starts out when G.G. meets Gaustine, and together they build a clinic of sorts for people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Each room is a recreation of a different decade, to help ease the troubles of those who have already forgotten their present/recent history, and would be more easily settled in the 1960’s (or other eras). It snowballs from there, becoming a whole city filled with different time periods, even branching out to include people who are not sick, who want to return to the years of their youth, to reject the present, and re-embrace what they view as simpler times….and then every EU country is holding a referendum on which time period they should return to, and things take quite the turn.

I didn’t necessarily thoroughly enjoy my reading experience, but it really did make me pause and think about our obsession with the past, particularly with the years of our youth, the issues of repeating past mistakes even through recreation, and how the surface level whimsy will always get tangled in the darker depths of the time period. This book is undeniably intriguing, however I did find myself having to power through certain sections.

Thank you to the publishers, and Netgalley, for the copy to review.

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Time Shelter is a very clever book with an interesting and thought provoking concept. The book follows two men as the set up a memory clinic for patients struggling with dementia or other memory issues. The clinic is designed to resemble the year which is most comforting/memorable to the patient and therefore evoke memories. However as time goes on this idea snowballs and is adopted across Europe as different countries decide they want to live in certain times.
I found the first part of the book about the memory conics most interesting and really enjoyed this section. As the book progresses I felt the pace slowed a bit for me although this could be personal preference as I have a greater interest in the health aspect of this idea rather than the political history that is also a large part of this book.
Overall a very interesting and though provoking read that raises lots of questions and discussion points. Definitely worthy of its place on the International Booker Prize shortlist.

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Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

Ah, the light of other days:

Once (not so long ago), as I was wandering around Brooklyn, I sensed for the first time with such clarity that the light was coming from another time. I could define it quite precisely, the light of the 1980s, sometime from the beginning of the decade, I think it was from 1982, late summer. Light as if from a Polaroid picture, lacking brightness, soft, making everything look slightly faded. (p. 50)

There is no slow glass here, capturing 1982’s photons and releasing them back to the narrator; but in an important sense the narrator is still literally encountering the light of late summer 1982. His job, at this point in Georgi Gospodinov's hypnotic, haunting novel Time Shelter (2020; trans. Angela Rodel 2022) is, despite what you may initially think, not to design filters for Instagram, but to be a collector for his enigmatic, magus-like friend and colleague Gaustine, recognising and capturing not just the light but the smells, sounds, objects, and stories of different periods when they manifest in the present day. If the future is here, but unevenly distributed, then so is the past.

What he collects is subsequently used to enhance Gaustine’s clinic in Zurich, which recreates different versions of different twentieth-century decades in different rooms, providing therapeutic environments for those who no longer find the present tolerable, largely people with encroaching amnesia—a literalisation of some of the more sensationalist descriptions of residential care “dementia villages” such as the Hogeweyk in the Netherlands. The 40s occupy the ground floor, with a basement to recreate World War Two bomb shelters; then as you climb through the building you climb through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The attic is reserved for the 80s and 90s: as yet sparsely populated. It is not a museum. There are no actors; any inhabitants are reacting genuinely. The inversion of Thomas Mann’s International Sanatorium Berghof—with the rooms, rather than their occupants, becoming symbolic—is acknowledged in the text, although Switzerland is apparently also chosen as Gaustine's venue because of all places in Europe it is the one least marked by the twentieth century, and therefore most easily inhabited by different eras, a quality described as “time degree zero” (p. 43).

A handful of case studies relating to European traumas of the twentieth century demonstrate how the therapy works, when it does. An elderly woman who arrives with a “blank face” and “empty gaze” (p. 75) is brought to life by a room containing a heavy wooden radio, of a kind she remembers from her urgent evacuation from Bulgaria to Germany in 1944. More branches of the clinic open up: in the Sofia clinic, two men, Mr N and Mr A, strike up an acquaintance, realise that behind the iron curtain, the latter had been an agent reluctantly surveilling the former, and are able to process some of the implications of that connection. Sometimes, however, the treatment is only palliative. “On a warm June evening in 1978” (p. 101), the narrator re-encounters his father watching that year’s world cup final. For a brief moment, “We don't know how a match that ended forty years ago will end [...] everything is possible” (p. 103); but ultimately his father’s forgetting is too advanced.

In a time when, the narrator observes, memory loss is the fastest-spreading disease in the world, the concept of re-creating past times soon leaves the confines of the clinic and becomes commonplace across Europe. “Imperceptibly people in native costumes began to take over the cities”; modern clothes are not banned, but will get you dirty looks. It’s easiest to go along to get along. “The soft tyranny of any majority” (p. 122). This retreat into the past is the result of a loss of belief in the future, and is framed as both ecological—as Gaustine observes, it is likely that the first era named for humanity could turn out to be its last—and socioeconomic. Before too long politicians are participating (“the European Parliament began to resemble some German New Year's special from the 80s” [p. 122]), with the debate framed in terms eerily familiar from real-world political debates of the last half decade: “when you have no future, you vote for the past” (p. 124). But in Time Shelter, voting for the past is literalised. Each European country will hold its own referendum to decide to which decade of the twentieth century they would like to return. Two countries outside the Union petition to participate: Great Britain is denied, but Switzerland is accepted.

This big-picture idea is intoxicatingly, distractingly fertile. It’s a good thing for the novel’s sake that Gospodinov takes the time to show us in detail what the referendum might mean for one country, his native Bulgaria. His narrator (who is a version of the author) returns to Sofia to observe the process. The airline that flies him there and the car that meets him there are old and worn, but not yet through choice. It's April, but autumn in his mind: he walks through old haunts, remembers old lovers but doesn't dare contact them, remembers student nights that he wishes he could forget. The referendum, we understand, is something of a lie from the start, because the past is always with us and always personal. But the fervour in the body politic is undeniable, and immune to such sober considerations. “It’s as if,” the narrator observes, “some people think that bringing back the recent past will also automatically take them back to the age they were then” (p. 155). There are advocates for every decade (the narrator would probably pick either the 30s for the literature or the 60s for “the vague feeling that I remember that decade in detail” [p. 159]), but two leading camps have quickly emerged. The Movement For State Socialism argues for a return to the mature communist state of the 60s and 70s; against that, the Bulgarian Heroes lobby for recreating the earliest allowed decade, right at the start of the century, which they claim as a peak of Bulgarian nationalism. The rallies of both groups are LARP fantasias involving a lot of hired extras, enacted with assistance from an old theatrical friend of the narrator. Even before the referendum the past is changing the economics of the present, the friend observes, creating new jobs as well as bringing back old ones. But the result of the referendum is dark. Following a statistical tie, the forces of nationalism and communism declare an alliance, “the fatherland fathered anew” (p. 212). The narrator rushes to catch a departing flight; the borders are closed two days later. “I had already lived through what was to come” (p. 213), he notes.

It's a brilliant, tragic section that anchors Time Shelter’s antic thought experiment. The situation in other European nations is only sketched, albeit with delicacy and some wit. A common thread is that countries don't choose what observers expect them to choose: “that which looked good from the outside did not look quite the same from the inside” (p. 232). For instance, very few people, it turns out, actually want to live in the 60s; average times are better for living in than revolutionary ones. The 90s are also under-favoured, turning out to be “a second-place dream” (p. 247) for most nations; although most of the Balkans are drawn there, albeit with a clause that their time will start only after the end of the wars. The largest bloc that emerges is for the 80s, in a spine running through France, Germany, Austria, and Poland. Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality, chooses the date of the referendum itself, providing a new clock for the rest of Europe to set its time by.

Gospodinov is not done with his readers yet. The new situation is only metastable; locals rebel against the national majorities, and Europe fractures further, becoming “a chaotic open-air clinic of the past” (p. 254), where road maps are suddenly time maps. But the experience of being in that Europe is largely left to readers to imagine; instead, from this point on the narrative becomes increasingly impressionistic and metafictional, and somewhat Gene Wolfean, as the narrator struggles against his own encroaching amnesia, and his ambiguous relationship with Gaustine. He becomes acutely conscious of the layers of his local times, and how he interacts with them:

I observe the world shut up in a room from the seventeenth century, with Wi-Fi from the twenty-first century, writing on a wooden desk that is at least one hundred years old and sleeping in a bed with metal head- and footboards from the nineteenth century. I try to play out the past that lies ahead. [...] Forgive me, O God of utopias, the times have mixed together and now you don’t know whether the story you are telling has already happened or is yet to come. (pp. 264-5)

It is enough. Time Shelter left me feeling very strange, the way living in any time can make you feel, if you’re paying attention.

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This book came to my attention from its longlisting for the International Booker Prize and I was delighted to get the opportunity to read it, thank you.,

What a fascinating concept for a book. This one drew me straight in and I really enjoyed the first third or so of the book but then it lost me a little before winning me back again with the final sections. While the overall theme of the book shadows it in its entirety , this book read to me like interconnected short stories, some of which hit the mark and some fell short but overall I found it a deeply satisfying, thought provoking and enjoyable read and it prompted to read more of Bulgaria's history, something I didn't forsee on my list of interests this year.

The author infuses great warmth and consideration in his writing which made this a much more accessible read than anticipated. I have read four of the longlisted novels now and this is by far my favourite to date. I will buy a copy of this one and reread it at a slower pace at some point.

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I was so conflicted with this book because for the first 40% I was absolutely in love with it and couldn’t put it down. Then I felt like it slowed down a lot and took its eye off the ball and went off on all these tangents. And then for the last 20% I fell in love with it again! It was such a mixed bag but by the end of the book I felt like I had thoroughly enjoyed it and understood what it was trying to stay and it’s stylistic choices.

It begins with two men who want to open a clinic for people with dementia and memory issues, however this clinic works by being an eerily accurate relic of the past so the patients believe they are back in the world if their younger selves which helps to reverse memory loss. What follows is a slippery slope where Europe he comes completely obsessed with the past and a complete epidemic of nostalgia ensues.

The section which was boring felt a bit info dumpy but the large majority of this novel I felt really connected to. There were echoes of Borges so strongly in here which I adored especially towards the end. I feel like I want to reread it again just to experience the narrator’s breakdown in memory and narrative.

The Eastern-European writers have really impressed me in this International Booker Prize list so I’m definitely going to seek out more.

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A very worth International Booker prize longlister, Time Shelter is a clever and controversial novel positing what society would be like if the human race was able to pick and choose which time period we lived in.

The story begins when our narrator meets Gaustine, a fascinating character who we are not altogether sure is real, as throughout the novel the narrator often alludes to the fact that Gaustine is fictional and all made up in his head. Gaustine has a fascination with the idea of building his time shelters, originally just a treatment for sufferers of dementia and Alzheimers. The concept is simple; he builds rooms an buildings to act like living time capsules to transport the victims of memory loss back to a time that they remember, to ease their suffering in an unfamiliar and terrifying world.

Over time this idea is usurped, unsurprisingly, by political parties and the latter half of the novel poses a referendum, held in every European country, to decide which decade they are going to reset the clocks to.

Both the concept of using the time shelters to help the infirm, as well as this extrapolation into countries forming time shelters to take the population back to a 'better time', open up rather large cans of worms. The discussion topics that can be gleaned from this novel are endless, and it is one of few books that i have read that i've had to genuinely pause reading to ponder various questions.

This is such an engrossing read, though I felt that the pace slowed a little when considering all of the different European countries and their histories in the context of the referendums, but this would come down to personal preference as I find too much historical context hard to focus on, even though it was highly relevant to this plot line and in fact very intelligently thought out.

All in all, this was an excellent read and though at times confusing, an absolute gem of a book and wonderfully well translated into English. I will be rereading this at a later date to gain further clarification as I did find it a lot to absorb in an initial reading, and I believe that this would be just as enjoyable, if not more so, on a second reading.

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