Book Review: A Time Unpromised

Title: A Time Unpromised by Natalie Payne

Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age

Book Description from Goodreads: Jac Harvey has always played second fiddle to his older brother Pierre. Growing up Pierre is brilliant and handsome, very much the golden child in their family. Jac, eight years younger, is his polar opposite, shy and antisocial, struggling through school. Against all odds the brothers are close. Jac looks up to Pierre, hangs on his every word. When Pierre gets accepted at Princeton University, Jac is just as thrilled as their parents. Pierre leaves to begin his studies and for the first time, Jac is alone with his parents. But Jac’s isolation is tapered by the letters he receives from his brother every few months. Two years pass, and at last Pierre returns for a visit. It is a happy occasion, until Jac realizes that something is terribly wrong. His brother has changed. Gone is the happy, charming adolescent. Pierre has grown into a rebellious, angry man, spending long hour alone, preoccupied and distant. What caused the change? What happened in the two years that Pierre was away? The answers to these questions will change Jac’s world forever.

Book Review: The description of this novel really set me up to expect a life-changing event happening when Pierre was away at school, and while there was a change in attitude, I think the most pivotal events happen while Pierre is visiting his family. To me, the story read less like a mystery and more as a tale of how happiness can be fleeting and how important it is to make the most of what you are given. It shows a variety of ways of coping with the inconstancy of happiness, and in the end, suggests that embracing the time you are given is the best and only option.

Note: I was supposed to review this book in March and somehow, with the busy-ness of preparing for the A-Z challenge and everything else that happened that month, I never got around to it. So here is my thoughts at last (and hopefully, the author will forgive me for taking so long). 🙂

Narration: 3 out of 5. I felt like the narrative offered scope for more, but didn’t quite realize it’s full potential. The story is in third person present tense, but it could easily have been first person, as everything seems to be from Jaq’s perspective. And I feel that it could’ve been told much closer, helping us see what he sees, know what he knows, and feel what he feels. (Still, it’s possible that, in order to keep what happened to him, his brother, and his family a mystery, we could’ve have known too much, too early, if we’d actually been privy to all Jaq’s thoughts and feelings…but it felt like Jaq held the readers at arm’s length, along with everyone else in his life.)

The present tense didn’t bother me, though, as it felt that Jaq was very much living in the moment, and trying hard not to think about the past or the future, so it made a lot of sense. And the description helped me picture the setting, most of the time. It just didn’t have as much flavor as it could’ve if we, as readers, had been closer to the characters telling the story (either the unaccounted-for narrator or Jaq himself).

Content: 3 out of 5. The content was another area where I felt the story struggled, as we are introduced to Jaq in the present day, then bounced back to the past and the further past of his childhood. It’s only at the end that we can really appreciate the present-day scene at the beginning (I actually went back and re-read the prelude so as to get closure and learn what had happened to characters after having become attached to them during the course of the story).

And I wish there had been a map accompanying this book, as I wasn’t sure at first where in the world we were. After all the talk of Florida, I figured we must be in the Caribbean somewhere, but I really would’ve like to know if it was based on a real island or was a fictional place.

Characters: 4 out of 5. This was the strongest part of the book, which is necessary in a literary/coming-of-age story. I really felt like we got to know Jaq, his brother, father, mother, and friends as he saw them, and yet they were real people, hinting at more…and I somewhat wish we could’ve had more. I’d have liked to learn why his mother became who she was–how she met his father, why she married him, and what made her move on to other men. And I was also very curious as to how his family felt about his friendship with Conrad, who came from such a different class and family. The social and racial tensions and differences were hinted at, but not elaborated on, making me want more.

Minor spoiler: Overall, the character arc for Jaq was very well done, making me consider my own life and whether I was living closed-off in any way, having let fear or bad experiences hedge me in from the joys of living fully, embracing what life offers. So I greatly enjoyed this aspect, though I wish the narration had helped draw the characters out further.

Artwork: Subjective. Personally, I thought the cover fit very well. The little boy is Jaq, as he was at his happiest, or it could symbolize Jaq’s perspective as he watches Conrad (as the lighting doesn’t allow us to tell the exact shade of skin of the little boy). In either case, it fits the idea of a time of happiness and delight being unpromised–a gift, rather than something to expect and depend upon.

World-Building: 4 out of 5. As I already mentioned, figuring out the world of the story was a challenge. I couldn’t establish where we were, and since most of the story is told somewhat through the lens of a man who is closed off and doesn’t care that much about life or those around him, it felt like the world-building was equally stunted. I learned some of what Jaq’s world was like, particularly when he was in the country, but his city life remained a mystery.

Again, this could’ve been an artistic choice to reinforce how cold and lifeless Jaq had become, to where his world lacked color, definition, and details, and if that was the goal, it worked just great, but it didn’t create a very well-rounded feel (and the narration when he finally came to life again didn’t feel that different, showing how vibrant he’d become, so I don’t think the lack of world-building was wholly intentional).

Overall Response: 13 out of 20, or 3.5 overall. If you enjoy a story of growth and a journey from childhood to dysfunctional adulthood (minor spoiler) that ends in revelation and change, you would like this story. The setting is new and unusual (at least for me, who has never lived on a Caribbean island), and I liked how the author indicated the difference between a tourist’s experience and that of one who grew up there. Overall, it was a good story, even though it left me with questions about what happened next with the characters and Jaq’s family.

To read more book reviews like this, click here.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Cover image provided by the author

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