Described by publisher Kwela Books as “a genre-bending Science Fiction romance – with a liberal splash of Nabokov”, Tom Learmont’s latest novel is nothing if not ambitious. Despite its relatively meagre length of less than 250 pages, the novel aims to mesmerise the reader with a heady mixture of science fiction, a transcontinental love story, reflections on the literary and human sciences, time travel, evolution, the meaning of existence, layers upon layers of “reality”, and spooks and aliens. Although this might sound like a potentially thrilling melting pot of thematic content, Learmont’s work is a decidedly frustrating and often bafflingly silly attempt at a cross-over novel. Unlike reader favourites such as Sophie’s World or Foucault’s Pendulum it ends up falling well short of the mark.
Without giving away too much of what is a deceptively simple plot, we follow a budding London romance between Alan “Steve” Stevens and Melanie Austin, two journalists who cover gambling machines and events out of the ordinary or the supernatural, respectively. Elemer Urban, an older man who appears to be a charming “crackpot charlatan” with an obsession with Nabokov’s Pale Fires, shares with them the secrets of the X-crystals on his mysterious grey and black ring. The couple spend the rest of the novel on a quest of his devising to uncover a world that defies all expectation.
It is a great pity that a novel in which the action moves from London, Johannesburg and the Free State to many other (pre)historic locations, and where we encounter everything from the manipulation of time and space to extraterrestrial life, is unable to render virtually any of the action and interactions between the characters in a credible or even engaging manner. An uneven amalgam of cliché, unconvincing dialogue and a poor feel for characterisation anchors the novel in a one-dimensional imaginative dimension. This, for me, resulted in repeated instances where I was left shaking my head at the sheer woodenness of the prose, the stilted and artificial interiority of the main characters and the lack of distinction between the feel and texture of any of the number of adventures we are to follow. We are offered exposition by the bucketloads, yet the suspension of disbelief is made increasingly impossible.
Apart from the unwaveringly synthetic and staged feel of Light Across Time there is very little tension or conflict, precious little heat and sizzle, in a novel that purports to be a love story above all else. Although Alan and Melanie are both fairly likeable in a generic sense, their romance comes across as a hackneyed, saccharine soirée rather than a plausible connection between two lost souls. Their attraction and intimacy are altogether too easy and too undemanding to warrant extended coverage, and eventually the outcome of their union is of trifling interest, to be honest. Similarly, the eventual payoff of the novel culminates in a question-and-answer section of all things, devoid of any gripping revelations. Simply more information and equivocation follow when a little bit of mystery and of things not said would have paid dividends.
Ultimately, too much light and far too little shade is the undoing of a potential literary tour de force. The books that pull you as a reader in and stay with you are invariably the ones that cast light on issues in a three-dimensional and unique way without bludgeoning you over the head with the torch that was supposed to show you the way. Light Across Time unfortunately never reaches the dizzy heights it so desperately attempts to reach, and arguably fails to launch entirely.