Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Penelope Farmer’s classic Charlotte Sometimes has shimmering and unnerving quality. It asks such existential questions as Who am I?

When a girl named Charlotte starts at boarding school, a strange thing happens on her first night. She wakes up in the same bed, in the same room, in the same boarding school, but instead finds she has been transported back forty years to 1918. The girl who shares her room in 1918 is named Emily. Emily thinks Charlotte is simply her older sister, Clare, and treats her as such. Soon enough, however, Emily notices differences in “Clare’s” personality, and Charlotte confesses the strange thing that has happened to her. And so, every night Charlotte sleeps in the curious bed, she travels on alternate days between the past and the present.

Then a complication occurs. When the girls in 1918 are moved into lodgings with the Chisel Brown family and away from the boarding school, she can no longer sleep in the same magical bed. Charlotte is trapped in 1918, just as the First World War is about to end, and must find a way to get back to the present.

Penelope Farmer’s 1969 novel is, on the face of it, a time travel fantasy. What makes it interesting is that it’s written in an understated, realistic style. The only aspect that moves away from the everyday is Charlotte’s simple ability to move between 1918 and 1958. Farmer also drew on a lot of family and personal experiences, giving the text its authentic flavour. All of this results in the the novel having a kind of shimmering, unnerving, existential quality. The book is very much a meditation on personality. Charlotte, as she inhabits Clare and moves between the past and future, often asks, Who am I? Her very unusual and discombobulating time travels suggest that we barely exist beyond our social and family context. An absorbing and curious read.

Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099582526  RRP: $14.99

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