Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 15, 2010

Time travel and Hawthorne

The Holder of the World, Bharati Mukherjee (1993), Knopf, 286 pp.

Here’s this book’s version of time travel:

Every time-traveler will create a different reality–just as we all do now. No two travelers will be able to retrieve the same reality, or even a fraction of the available realities. History’s a big savings bank … we can all make infinite reality withdrawals.

This is according to the heroine’s boyfriend, Venn. I love that his name brings up images of Venn diagrams, those circles that show where sets of data overlap. Mukherjee explores where various histories and cultures overlap, particularly the three at the center of this book: Puritan New England of the late 1600s, Mughal India of the same period, and the modern world of computer programs and asset hunting.

The heroine, Beigh Masters, is an asset hunter, with ancestral ties to the Puritans. Her job is to track down valuable items for her clients to purchase, and her hobby is following the trail of the Salem Bibi (“the white wife from Salem”), aka “Precious-as-Pearl”, a mistress of a Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Beigh thinks the Salem Bibi (Hannah Easton) may be one of her Puritan ancestors, and Venn’s work makes it possible for her to time travel into Hannah’s life. We get to be this woman, as she abandons her Puritan life for lives gradually more and more glamorous and dangerous, yet always choosing these lives–not just being chosen.

Mukherjee gives her readers a glorious exploration of the Mughals and Puritans, piracy, conquest (both military and romantic), art, myth, and lives intertwined across eras separated by centuries. And then, the little twist that connects Hannah to Hester Prynne–I knew something would happen to put those two together, but I wasn’t sure how Mukherjee would do it. Very satisfying, and I think even Hawthorne would be impressed.

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