Shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Longlisted for the 2019 CBC Canada Reads
A Globe and Mail Best Book of 2018
Longlisted for the 2019 Sunburst Award
A Penguin Book Club Pick
An unforgettable love story of two people who are at once mere weeks and many years apart, for readers of Station Eleven.
America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him, even if it means risking everything. She agrees to a radical plan. Time travel has been invented; if she signs up for a one-way trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.
But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a terrifying new world to find Frank, to discover if he is alive, and to see if their love has endured.
An Ocean of Minutes is a gorgeous, devastating novel about courage, yearning, the cost of holding onto the past--and the price of letting it go.
About the author
Thea Lim grew up in Singapore and now lives in Toronto. Her work has been published in The Utne Reader, Shameless Magazine, and the anthology Between Myself and Them: Stories of Disability and Difference (Second Story Press).
- Long-listed, Canada Reads
- Short-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: An Ocean of Minutes (by (author) Thea Lim)
People wishing to time travel go to Houston Intercontinental Airport. At the orientation, the staff tell them that time travel is just like air travel, you even go to the same facility. People used to be apprehensive about airline travel too. But when you arrive at the airport, it is not the same at all. Before you can get within a mile of the terminals, you reach a bus stop moored at the edge of a vast concrete flat, where you must leave your vehicle and ascend a snaking trolley, like the ones they have at the zoo.
A quarantine taxi makes its way to that lone bus stop, the airport appearing through a million chain-link diamonds. The driver is encased in an oval of hermetically sealed Plexiglas. In the back seat, Frank is wearing a yellow hazmat suit. The colour marks him as infected.
Now is the time for last words, but Polly’s got nothing. Frank keeps nodding off and then snapping awake, stiff-spined with terror, until he can locate her beside him. “We can still go back!” He has been saying this for days. Even in his sleep he carries on this argument, and when he opens his eyes, he moves seamlessly from a dream fight to a waking one. Already his voice is far off, sealed away inside his suit.
She pulls his forehead to her cheek, but his mask stops her short. They can only get within three inches of each other. The suit rubs against the vinyl car seat and makes a funny, crude noise, but they don’t laugh. Polly would like to breathe in the smell of Frank’s skin one last time, a smell like salt cut with something sweet, like when it rains in the city. But all she gets is the dry smell of plastic.
The news outlets went down weeks ago, but that didn’t stop the blitz of ads for the Rebuild America Time Travel Initiative: billboards painted on buildings, posters wheat-pasted over empty storefronts, unused mailboxes stuffed with mailers. there is no flu in 2002 and travel to the future and rebuild america and no skills necessary! training provided!
At first the ads were like a joke, gallows humour for people who were stranded once the credit companies went down and the state borders were closed to stop the flu’s spread, people like Polly and Frank, who got trapped in Texas by accident. Later, the ads made Frank angry. He would tear the pamphlets from the mailboxes and throw them on the ground, muttering about opportunism. “You know they don’t market this to the rich,” he’d say, and then an hour later, he’d say it again.
They stayed indoors except for the one day a week when they travelled to the grocery store, which had been commandeered by five army reservists who doled out freeze-dried goods to ragged shoppers. The reservists had taken it upon themselves to impose equal access to the food supply, partly out of goodness and partly out of the universal desperation for something to do. One day, the glass doors were locked. A handwritten sign said to go around the back. The soldiers were having a party. With their rifles still strapped on, they were handing out canned cocktail wieners, one per person, on candy-striped paper dessert plates that looked forlorn in their huge hands. Ted, the youngest, a boy from Kansas who had already lost his hair, was leaving for a job in the future. He was going to be an independent energy contractor. There was another sign, bigger and in the same writing, on the back wall: 2000 here we come! It was a rare, happy thing, the soldiers and the shoppers in misfit clothes, standing around and smiling at each other and nibbling on withered cocktail sausages. But just that morning, the phone had worked for five minutes and they got a call through to Frank’s brothers, only to be told it had been weeks since the landlord changed the locks to Frank’s apartment, back in Buffalo. The landlord was sympathetic to Frank’s predicament, but he could no longer endure the absence of rent. “But what about my stereo?” Frank had said. “What about my records? What about Grandpa’s butcher knife?” His voice was small, then smaller, as he listed off everything that was now gone.
Frank was usually the life of the party, but that afternoon behind the grocery store, he picked on a pinch-faced woman, muttering at her, “Why don’t they stop the pandemic, then? If they can time travel, why don’t they travel back in time to Patient Zero and stop him from coughing on Patient One?”
“They tried.” The woman spoke with her mouth full. “The earliest attainable destination date is June of ’81. Seven months too late.”
“What? Why? How can that be?” This clumsy show of anger was new. Frank was normally charming. He was the one who did the talking. Later, his sudden social frailty would seem like a warning of the sickness that arrived next. It unsettled Polly, and she was slow to react.
But the woman didn’t need someone to intervene. “That’s the limit of the technology. It took until the end of ’93 to perfect the machine, and twelve years is the farthest it can jump. Or to be precise, four thousand one hundred and ninety-eight days is the farthest it can jump. Do you live under a rock?”
The tips of Frank’s ears pinked and Polly should have made a joke, offered comfort. But she was distracted. In that second, it stopped being a fiction. Time travel existed, and the plates of her reality were shifting. She felt a greasy dread in the centre of her chest. She wanted to drop her food and take Frank’s hand and anchor him in the crook of her arm, as if he were in danger of being blown away.
Now they are pulling up to the lone bus stop, and they can see the new time-travel facility across the lot bisected by trolleys. The facility is a monolith, the widest, tallest building either of them has ever seen, and something primal in Polly quails. The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.
“You don’t have to go,” Frank says.
“Say something else. Say something different.” Polly is smiling and shaking her head, an echo of some long-ago courting coyness that once existed between them. It has landed here, in the wrong place entirely, but she can’t get control of her face.
“You don’t have to go,” he says again in his faraway voice, unable to stop.
Polly can only muster short words. “It’s okay. We’ll be together soon. Don’t worry.”
The sole way Polly was able to convince Frank to let her go was through Ted, the reservist from Kansas. He and his buddies had a plan to meet in 2000. They had chosen a place and everything. “We can do the same,” she said to Frank. “I’ll ask for the shortest visa, I’ll ask for a five-year visa.” It was a setback when she got to the TimeRaiser office and they offered minimum twelve-year visas. But still he would meet her, on September 4th, 1993, at Houston Intercontinental Airport. “What if you’re rerouted?” he asked. He had heard about this from another patient, who heard about it from a cousin, who knew someone who worked at the facility, who said they could change your year of destination, while you were in mid-flight. Polly said reroutements were a rumour, a myth. Why would they send you to a time totally other than the one you signed for? That would be like buying a ticket to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. But to calm him, she came up with a back-up plan. If something went wrong and either of them couldn’t make it, then the first Saturday in September, they’d go to the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, until they find one another. “Not just the first,” he said. “Every Saturday, every September.” This was overkill, a lack of good faith, but he was distraught, so she gave in. And if the Flagship Hotel is gone, they’ll meet on the beach by its footprint. Even if between now and ’93, aliens invade and the cities are crumbled and remade, the land will still end where the sea begins at the bottom of Twenty-Fifth Street.
Still he is not satisfied. He puts his head back. His skin is so grey and drawn that it looks about to flake off, and it’s as if the brown is fading from his hair. When Polly speaks again, it sounds like when she is drunk and trying to conceal it, enunciating each of her words, a single phrase requiring maximal concentration: “If I don’t go, you will die.”
WINNER of Simcoe Reads 2020
Shortlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlisted for the 2019 CBC Canada Reads
Longlisted for the Sunburst Award
A Globe and Mail Best Book of 2018
A CBC Best Book of 2018
Shortlisted for the ALA Reading List for Science Fiction
Longlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award
A CBC Canadian fiction bestseller in 2018
An Indie national bestseller in 2018
An Indie Next Pick & Indigo Best Book of the Month
A Real Simple Best Book of 2018
A Chatelaine "18 Buzzy Books Everyone Will Be Talking About This Summer" selection
One of Maclean's "15 books you should read this summer"
One of cbc.ca’s "8 Canadian books we can’t wait to read in June" selection A Loan Stars Top 10 pick by Canadian librarians for June 2018
One of cbc.ca’s “8 Canadian speculative fiction reads to check out this summer”
One of Entertainment Weekly's "10 prescient feminist dystopias to read after The Handmaid's Tale"
One of Bustle’s 11 New Books To Read When It's Way Too Hot To Go Outside
"Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes is that rare thing - a speculative novel that is as heartfelt as it is philosophical. In lucid prose, Lim lays bare the complexities of migration and displacement, while offering a clear-eyed meditation on the elusive nature of human devotion. An original and compelling novel unlike anything you'll read this year." —Esi Edugyan, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Washington Black and Half-Blood Blues
“Amidst the breathtaking world Thea Lim has created in An Ocean of Minutes is a profound meditation on the inhumanity of class and the limits of love. It takes immense talent to render cruelty both accurately and with honest beauty—Lim has pulled it off. This is a story about the malleability of time, but at its core lives something timeless.” —Omar El Akkad, author of American War
“An Ocean of Minutes offers that rare combination of a provocative speculative setting, masterfully elegant writing, and a story that moves and haunts long after the last page. Thea Lim is an enormously talented writer.” —David Chariandy, author of Brother and Soucouyant
“A strikingly imaginative time-travel story unlike anything I’ve ever read, rich with pinpoint emotional insight and fierce, vivid observations about a future that’s already our past.” —Elan Mastai, author of All Our Wrong Todays
"An Ocean of Minutes is a time machine into the future of this moment. Gripping and graceful, it's dystopian love story as told by a visionary. . . . Reads like the birth of a legend.” —Mat Johnson, author of Loving Day and Pym
"A buoyant, compelling tale ranging from the everyday beauty of falling in love to a frightening vision of a dystopian present day. Ms. Lim's imagination is boundless and dynamic. . . . A truly unique story." —Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters
"Lim takes the lovers-separated-by-time narrative further than any other writer I’ve read, exploring class divisions, migrant workers, racism, climate change, and corporate psychopathy. A searing indictment of so much of what presently ails us, Lim’s is a story for our time." —LitHub
"The novel oscillates between the present and future--a jarring juxtaposition that's equally touching and heartbreaking. . . . Lim's writing shines brightest when she's ruminating on time, memory, and love. . . . A beautiful debut exploring how time, love, and sacrifice are never what they seem to be." —Kirkus
"Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The premise Lim sets up here allows for the most multifaceted examination of time’s value. Time is Polly and Frank’s shared past and the promise of a shared future…The tragedy that the people we love don’t get to live forever is the subject of some of our oldest stories. And also, it seems, our stories of the future.” —The Globe and Mail
“The clear-eyed, evocative writing here is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, and anyone familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale will find resonance in these pages. Similarly, Lim draws on the New CanLit, tapping into its energetic focus on social justice, using fiction to probe our contemporary reality — in all its staggering inequality. . . . [Lim] comes into her own here, with prose that’s elegant and haunting, somehow managing to be both unsentimental and deeply moving at the same time. A devastating debut.” —Toronto Star
“Thea Lim’s beautiful debut novel . . . is a deep dive into personal longing, political turmoil and time travel. . . . A heartbreaking page turner that delves into issues of race, class, labour and how to live with the passage of time.” —NOW magazine
“There’s so much going on this book, including passages of wondrous prose and attempts to answer the question of where love goes when it’s over. . . . . [I] was so impressed by the extent of the allegory, about race and gender, migration, capitalism, environmental and the perilous balance of so much that we take for granted. . . . I loved this book, and how it turns another time into another country, but doesn’t it always seem that way? So far away, and yesterday, and it’s as though you could almost get back there, and you nearly know the way.” —Kerry Clare, on her blog Pickle Me This
“Like the best dystopian worlds, Thea Lim’s debut resonates with the present. . . . There are echoes of . . . Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife [in] Lim’s examination of love’s durability through crisis and time. . . . An Ocean of Minutes is a timely novel that brings a fresh perspective on the complex subjects of migration and displacement that plague our world today.” —The Irish Times
“Lim's remarkable debut delves into immigration and the ravages of time, yet without ever losing sight of the love story at its bittersweet heart. . . . [Lim has] created that rare thing in modern fiction - a truly compelling love story, between two people you cannot help but be emotionally invested in.” —The Straits Times (Singapore)
“Love can cross oceans, but can it transcend time? . . . Soulmates, survival and sacrifice are interwoven in this poignant, heartrending tale.” —Canadian Living
"The love story—more precisely, Toronto-based Lim’s exquisite examination of the soul-saving illusions of love—that unspools as Polly searches for Frank is more than strong enough to carry this absorbing debut." —Maclean's
"A story of loss and longing. . . . An unusual investigation on the impact of being separated from the people you love [that is] set in a past that could be our future.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“Heartbreakingly human.” —Hello Giggles
“I will never forget Polly and Frank and the way their story had me transfixed…There’s such an urgency to Polly’s story once she gets to the future and there are definite parallels to the migrant/refugee experience. I can’t wait for more people to read this book.” —Book Riot
"The prose is gorgeous. . . . Lim’s novel explores love’s vitality in a world where time creates as many wounds as it heals." —THIS magazine