In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This truism, however, belies a fact that anyone who’s spent any amount of time with an apparently “happy” family knows: each happy family is unhappy in its own way as well. Such is the case in Thomas Reyfiel’s Time Among the Dead. Evoking the Victorian sensibilities of works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the yearning for a better age inherent in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Rayfiel’s latest novel bears nostalgic witness to the passing of the age of aristocracy and the social mores that went along with it. What’s more, as the values and traditions of one era give way to the newfangled ways of the next, the uneasy relationship between the past and the ever-changing present comes into sharp and sometimes painful focus, only to reveal that even the past, or at least our recollection of it, is as fluid as any chain of events unfolding in the present.
At first glance, Time Among the Dead appears to be about the tension between the narrator and his shiftless grandson, Seabold. Under the pretense of tending to his ailing grandfather, Seabold arrives at the family estate to live the life of a country gentleman. The only problem with his plan is that the estate is nearly bankrupt, and Seabold has no real prospects for either love or employment — until, that is, he meets the daughter of a local peasant. Though the peasant’s financial footing is firm, he has no title, and so the narrator, William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, has no choice but to put an end to his grandson’s romance. William’s machinations, however, are complicated not only by the sudden appearance of Seabold’s closest school chum, but also by memories of a former life that William has heretofore painted over with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. The past, it turns out, is not what William has been making of it, and in many ways helps to explain his troubles in the present.
One thing that makes Time Among the Dead an especially intriguing read is the narrator’s prescience with respect to the audience who may or may not stumble upon his journals in the future. His desire throughout the proceedings is to set the record straight for posterity, whoever that posterity may include. Yet even as the narrator struggles to recall his past and record the present accurately, he is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, for the fragility of the mind coupled with the complexity of the heart precludes objectivity. Our knowledge of the past and present, Time Among the Dead insists, is always compromised, so the best we can do is work with the information we have and move tentatively toward the future.
A truly enchanting novel, Time Among the Dead offers readers a glimpse into a bygone era and suggests that what really sets humanity apart as a species is our peculiar talent for divining meaning in the present from the ceaseless tension between the past and the future.