Shadow Giller: Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes (2018)

Shadow Giller review contents: In Short, a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal; In Detail, elaborating on one aspect of the book which I found remarkable (perhaps only interesting for others who have read the book or who have an interest more mechanical aspects of writing); Giller-bility (musings on the likelihood of a proper win); In Other Words, containing links to other Shadow Jury members’ thoughts.

In short

An Ocean of Minutes brings to mind E.M. Forster’s “only connect”. True, there’s a bit of time travel in the mix, but ultimately this is a story about how one life intersects with another, about the waves that reverberate from that point of contact.

If that sounds more like an infection than affection, that’s appropriate; this novel begins in a time when disease sweeps through society with a devastating power. Many people opt to travel back in time as a means of coping with debilitation (their own or a loved one’s).

Frank and Polly make plans to meet again, after Polly travels backwards in time to aid Frank but a rash of bureaucratic complications foil their plans. Readers follow Polly’s experiences of separation and dislocation as she moves from the known familiar to the unknown familiar. When she shifts time, the world she enters is technically known and recognizable, but it’s also strange and dangerous.*

Readers looking for explanations will not find talk of tessering here; this story has more to say about memory and trust than mechanics. It is more about seeking and belonging than about time and space. As, for instance, when Polly observes: “When someone dies, there’s no one to share your memories anymore. They become like secrets. A secret life. No one knows you lived it, but you.”

With characters who are immediately appealing because of their dedication and determination, this story remains engaging because the problems they face are recognizable and credible: “She kept laughing in the evening light, which is what people do when monstrous epiphanies surface in their minds. You cannot put life on hold to have a moment of grief, so every second, half the people in the world are split in two. This is what they mean by life goes on, and the worst is that you go on along with it too.”

Readers go along with it too, yearning for an end to Polly and Frank’s yearning: their chances are split in two.

*In detail

The problems that Polly experiences are not related to the miscalculation in her transport time or the geographical alterations across the years. She experiences problems that women have experienced historically and in the present-day.

Matters of class and privilege become increasingly important when Polly’s paperwork hits a snag, and readers share Polly’s confusion and frustration, her longing for answers: “Instead, she could only make sense of this in narrow slices, at the place where politics intersected with the needs of her own small life.”

One remarkable aspect of Thea Lim’s novel is her capacity to move beyond the clear-cut delineations of victim and perpetrator, which makes for a more intriguing and rewarding story.

Once one acknowledges that everyone has the capacity to receive and to wield injury, the question of responsibility is ever-more complex. There are no convenient labels, so conflicts are not characterized by blame and rage, rather a more delicate dance of atonement and forgiveness, which is more unsettling but, ultimately, more satisfying.


The time-travel element gives this novel a whiff of genre, which isn’t generally rewarded by Giller Prize juries. Sometimes a title sneaks into the longlist, like Stephen Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s The Quiet Twin and Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family. Very occasionally to the shortlist, like Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. So it’s already unusual to see Thea Lim’s debut on the list; either the jurors are smitten, or they are committed to representing (even if not necessarily rewarding) genre writing.

In other words

Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).

This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill.

On October 1st, it and four other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety



  1. Kat November 10, 2018 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    I do like a literary time travel novel, and I might very well enjoy this, whether it wins or not. I am a fan of SF/fantasy, so appreciated your review of a book I’ve never heard of. (Off to look it up and see if it’s been published here.)

    • Buried In Print November 11, 2018 at 5:51 pm - Reply

      I think you might enjoy the pace of the story, and I’d be interested to see what you think, from a feminist perspective, of the conflicts and alliances which emerge later in the novel. It’s a mainstream press, and much of the action takes place in which is currently the U.S.A. so I expect you’ll have access after all!

  2. Naomi November 6, 2018 at 10:20 am - Reply

    I can see some people getting hung up by the technicalities of the time travel (and sometimes I am even one of those readers), but in this case I was not bothered. There just was time travel and that was that. It didn’t matter how or why.

    As you already know, I was definitely convinced by the love story – otherwise… well, you know…

    • Buried In Print November 6, 2018 at 12:55 pm - Reply

      Sometimes it bothers me too, especially when I have the feeling that it wasn’t thought through (which might have more to do with editorial decisions than the author’s original ideas). But here (maybe because of marketing decisions, maybe because even the vocabulary and pacing seem to prioritize the relationships over other details) I felt like I had what I needed to move on with the story. (The brief descriptions we are given of the process reminded me of the movie “Downsizing” even though that’s not about time travel either.)

  3. Angélique November 5, 2018 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    I absolutely LOVED this book. It is beautifully written, insightful and smart. To me, it seemed like a description of the experience of underprivileged immigrants in some countries. The use of time travel was quite clever because it is similar in a lot of ways indeed.

    • Buried In Print November 5, 2018 at 8:04 pm - Reply

      Yes, exactly! It feels like such a relevant and present-day-soaked story for that very reason. It reminded me of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, but with more intimacy (because you do get one character’s emotional experiences all the way through) although maybe not quite so much polish to the prose style (which makes sense for a debut).

  4. A Life in Books November 4, 2018 at 7:28 am - Reply

    This sounds intriguing. Very different from the other books on the shortlist reviewed so far. It’s a daring technique to introduce time travel into a non-genre novel but it seems to have come off here.

    • Buried In Print November 5, 2018 at 4:25 pm - Reply

      It worked for me, but I seem to recall reading other responses to the book which were frustrated by the lack-of-explanation and lack-of-detail about the mechanic of the system. I’m a sucker for a good love story though, so that didn’t bother me one bit!

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