The Thief of Time by John Boyne

The Thief of Time If you met Matthieu Zela for the first time you would probably think he was just a normal fifty-year-old man. You would be wrong. Matthieu Zela has been alive for more than two hundred and fifty years.

Born in Paris in 1743, he noticed at some point in the 1790s that he had simply stopped growing older and he has looked like a middle-aged man ever since. It’s now 1999 and his neverending existence still shows no sign of coming to an end. As he prepares to enter yet another new century, Matthieu looks back on his life so far (nineteen wives, a variety of different careers, and a series of nephews – nine generations of them – all called Thomas and all dying tragically young) and he discovers that maybe there is something he can do to break the cycle after all.

In The Thief of Time, two stories are told in parallel. One is set in the eighteenth century and follows the teenage Matthieu as he leaves home after losing both of his parents and sets off with his half-brother Tomas in search of a better life. As they board a ship to England, they meet Dominique Sauvet, the girl who will become Matthieu’s first love. The second main thread of the novel takes place in the present day (1999). Matthieu’s current nephew, Tommy – a descendant of Tomas – is an actor in a popular soap opera and is finding it difficult to cope with the pressures of fame. Worried about Tommy’s drug addiction, Matthieu (now a successful television executive) decides that even though he did nothing to help the previous generations of doomed Thomases, he won’t allow this one to die an early death.

Interspersed with these two storylines are a series of chapters looking at significant episodes in Matthieu’s life. During his two hundred and fifty-six years, he has witnessed some of the defining moments of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries including the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash and the 1896 Olympics, and meets Charlie Chaplin, Pope Pius IX and President Herbert Hoover, to name just a few. I didn’t find it particularly believable that Matthieu could have been so closely involved with all of these famous people and events but as the whole book is based around the idea of a man who never ages I’m not going to worry too much about that!

The Thief of Time was John Boyne’s debut novel and, having read some of his later ones (This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) this one really does feel like a first book. It’s such an interesting concept but there were too many flaws to make it a satisfying read. I think my biggest problem with the book was the structure; jumping from a chapter set in 1999 to one set in the 1700s and then another set during a random time period just didn’t work. The novel didn’t flow properly, there was no real character development and the historical chapters – which often felt irrelevant and did nothing to move the story forward – lacked a sense of time and place (there were also some historical inaccuracies, such as a mention of telegrams being sent during the French Revolution).

I was also disappointed that the reasons for Matthieu’s immortality are never explored – he never really questions how and why this is happening to him and the people around him don’t ever seem to notice anything unusual! I don’t think we are given a real explanation as to how he progressed from his first job as stable boy to a successful career in media either. There were some aspects of the book I liked, though: I enjoyed the Charlie Chaplin chapter and also the chapter set during the Great Exhibition of 1851, and while I didn’t particularly like Matthieu himself, I was interested in his television work and in his relationship with his latest nephew, Tommy.

If this had been my first John Boyne book I don’t think I would have wanted to read more, but as I loved the other three of his that I’ve read I will continue to work through the rest of his novels. I’m hoping for better luck with the next one I choose!

13 thoughts on “The Thief of Time by John Boyne

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    How odd that Matthieu’s immortality is never remarked upon — I could see leaving the reason for it unknown and unexplained, but it’s just not believable that nobody would notice! Too bad this had some flaws, but it still sounds intriguing (and I love the cover).

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I thought it was very weird that Matthieu never seemed to ask any questions about his immortality and nobody else even noticed that he wasn’t looking any older. This had the potential to be a great book but there were too many missed opportunities.

  2. Yvonne says:

    I’ve only read This House is Haunted, which I enjoyed. This is the only John Boyne novel I’ve read, but I have The House of Special Purpose in my reading pile. What a shame The Thief of Time was disappointing.

    • Helen says:

      I have read four of his books now and this is the only one I’ve found disappointing, so I’m still looking forward to reading his others. I hope you enjoy The House of Special Purpose.

  3. Lark says:

    I like Boyne, but it sounds like he was trying to include too much in this novel. Sometimes first novels are like that. I think I might skip this one. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think including all of those different time periods was too much. The book almost felt like a collection of unconnected short stories rather than a novel.

  4. Alex says:

    I love the premise behind this so it’s a shame that it hasn’t been better executed. I wonder if people who read this when it first came out were put off Boyne and haven’t, therefore enjoyed some of his later and better works?

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’m sure this book will have put people off reading more of Boyne’s work which is a shame as his later books (at least, the three that I’ve read) are definitely worth reading.

  5. whatmeread says:

    Hi, Helen, just letting you know that I posted my first Walter Scott book review since I decided to read them all. It is The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling: Feel free to remove this link from the comment or delete the comment if you don’t want it here, since I sometimes thing it is rude for people to send links to their own sites in their comments, unless requested, of course..

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