Unbearable Read: The Thief of Time Skip to content

Unbearable Read: The Thief of Time

The Thief of Time by Steinunn Sigurdardóttir, originally released as Tímathjófurinn in 1986, appeared in the English translation of Rory McTurk in 2007.

There is a clever idea behind this book, to merge the literary forms of novel and poetry. It begins as a novel and gradually evolves into poetry as the emotions of the main character grow more desperate.

Carried by waves of emotion, the storyline jumps back and forth between linear narration—during the main character’s moments of restraint—and confusing poetry as she suffers emotional fits.

The author plays with the name of the main character, Alda, which means wave.

Alda lives by the sea and her story makes one feel like being out at sea, rising to the top of a wave, then plunging down to the ocean’s depths. And even when the sea calms the ground is never quite steady.

Poetic, yes, but the problem with being out at sea in rough waters all the time is that it makes one sick to the stomach.

Alda is an incredibly unsympathetic character. She comes from a rich family, looks good and knows it, lives in a fancy house and doesn’t ever have to worry about finances or caring for others, except her sister.

She is a ruthless home-wreaker. Being the center of attention gives her pleasure. She lives for seducing the teenage boys at the school were she works as a language teacher and luring the husbands of others into dead-end romantic relationships. She isn’t completely heartless but still the kind of person one finds it difficult to sympathize with.

So when Alda is left heartbroken by a fellow teacher, an intelligent and handsome young man who leaves her for his wife after a short affair, one has a hard time feeling sorry for her, regardless of how desperate her story grows.

As she sinks deeper into self-pity and self-obsession, one just wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Maybe he just wasn’t that into you! Maybe you’re just so fixated on him because he dumped you but not the other way around! Woman, get over yourself already!”

That isn’t the worst thing about this book, though.

Admittedly, it has a few enjoyable points. Some of the poems are beautifully worded and describe the situation eloquently and some of the chapters in the novel part of the book, especially when Alda is out traveling, are colorful and atmospheric.

But the book is simply too long. It doesn’t have a complicated plot. It follows Alda from her 37th birthday and until she dies as an old woman. The aforementioned affair happens early on and then the rest is just desperation and misery throughout.

The book seems to go on forever and if I hadn’t been obligated to finish it because of this review I would have given up somewhere in the middle. Excuse me, but I don’t have to listen to this woman, who I don’t like, feel sorry for herself for 150 pages.

When Alda started feeling suicidal I actually caught myself thinking: “Fine, get over with it already so I can finally stop reading this book!”

As clever as the idea of merging literary forms may have been, it just doesn’t work. This is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. It could probably have made a better book of poetry—provided it were short and concise—but Alda’s story is simply not fit for a novel, unless people are into self-torture.

(Apparently, some people are, because I hear it’s been getting good reviews elsewhere and the French even turned it into a movie.)

I’ll give it two stars, though, one for being original and another for a few moments of color in between the doom and gloom. But that’s it.

I’m sorry to say that The Thief of Time ends up being exactly what it says on the cover. The time that was stolen from me while reading about Alda’s endless and unbearable heartbreak will never be returned.

The book is available here.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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