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Giller finalist Thea Lim's sci-fi romance migrates through space-time

Author Thea Lim poses for a photograph at her house in Toronto on Friday, November 9, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — When Toronto-based author Thea Lim travels back to Singapore, she finds the place where she grew up no longer exists, at least not to her.

Of course, she still can visit the geographic landmarks of her youth. But in a country that seems to regenerate itself with every trip, Lim finds the passage of time has swept away the Singapore of her memories, rendering her a tourist in a place she once called home.

“Place is infected by time, and then time is also infected by place,” said Lim, one of five finalists vying for the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. “In the same way we can’t go back to the places of our past … the past too takes on a feeling of being another place.”

But what about the future? This is the question that propels Lim’s Giller-shortlisted debut novel “An Ocean of Minutes” (Viking Canada) through the dimensions of love and loss in a genre-bending tale about time travel, the inevitability of endings and what happens after.

“Writers write about the questions that we’re haunted by, but I don’t think that the writing of the book actually answers those questions,” said Lim. “I think we just sort of infect other readers.”

At first, Lim said the impetus for the novel was to wrestle with a quandary posed by so many creative greats before her, including the goddess of pop, Cher, when she belted, “Do you believe in life after love?”

If love is an emotional “apocalypse,” said Lim, then she wanted to understand why one continues to risk new relationships, each heartbreak callousing into a layer of fortification from further grief.

“I think (it was) artistically useful to put someone through the paces of heartbreak and to try to understand how is it that people go on,” she said. “How can we manage loss in a productive way without ignoring, I think, the enormity of the things that we’ve had to leave behind?”

This brought Lim to a different kind of emotional displacement, one she had not intended to write about. But as she burrowed down the chronological wormholes of time travel, she was struck by a familiar sense of unfamiliarity.

Having grown up moving back and forth from her birth country of Canada to her father’s homeland of Singapore, Lim was accustomed to feeling caught between universes; a skilled navigator of the liminal space between here and there, then and now.  

“It’s kind of funny that you set out to write fiction, and then your own life seeps in, whether or not you want it to,” she said. “Something that became very fruitful in the writing of the novel is you realize home is not a place — it’s a time.”

If the past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously posited, then in “An Ocean of Minutes,” the future is a dystopia.

By turns a sweeping romance and a science-fiction epic, the novel begins in 1981 when 23-year-old Polly enters a Faustian bargain with the TimeRaiser corporation to be sent 12 years into the future to 1993 in exchange for providing life-saving treatment for her partner, Frank, who has been infected with a flu ravaging the United States of America.

After being rerouted five years ahead of schedule, Polly arrives in 1998 to find her country has been bisected into two nations — the United States and America. She is working off her debt to TimeRaiser in Texas, now part of the sovereign America along with the rest of the South, while her and Frank’s planned rendezvous point lies on the other side of the border in the United States.

As a “Journeyman,” Polly, who is half-Lebanese but identifies as white, is not considered an American citizen. When her immigration status is downgraded from a visa for workers with special skills to one associated with manual labour, she grapples with racial anxiety about being mistaken for Hispanic.

In the novel, prejudice primarily manifests itself as “chrono-discrimination,” said Lim, a bias based on the time in which one was born. But she wanted to portray the ways in which layers discrimination — including racism, classism or xenophobia — can intersect, both in her fictional universe and the real world.

Given the parallels between TimeRaiser’s use of indentured labour and the legacy of slavery in the South, Lim felt it was important to be mindful of that history, without appropriating the African-American experience.

Lim, who is of Chinese and white heritage, said she feels “protective” of readers who might feel marginalized by the dominant gaze, so she embedded the narrative with “mixed-race Easter eggs,” some drawn from her own experiences confronting leering curiosity about her ethnicity in both Canada and Singapore.

“I was sort of aware of all these stories around me that didn’t really match up with my own story and how I felt inside,” she said. “I really felt the need to have a really developed place inside of my head that I could retreat to. And maybe in a way, that’s sort of the beginning of becoming a writer.”

While it may prove impossible to preserve the past in amber, perhaps the emotional scaffolding of Lim’s home in Singapore still exists, in some sense, within her writing.

Reading, she said, can cause a rupture in the space-time continuum, a portal through which emotions from what felt like a past life will come flooding over you. Books can transport a reader not just to a different place and time, but another consciousness.

“I’ve experienced this magic so many times,” said Lim. “It’s this thing that connects you to, not just to another person’s mind and experiences, but to completely another part of your own experience.”

The winner of this year’s Giller prize will be announced at a Toronto gala on Monday.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press