The Thief Of Time by John Boyne, a book review

The Thief of Time - John Boyne

The Thief Of Time is the story of a Frenchman, Matthieu Zéla, a remarkable man who was born in the early 1700’s and is still alive some 250 years later, at the dawn of the new Millennium. The mystery of his unusual long life is tied to the fact that the descendants of his brother Tomas always die young, popping their clogs just after they’ve managed to secure the continuation of the line.

Since I picked it up in an airport bookshop some 10 years ago, I’ve read the book three or four times myself and loaned it to a number of friends. It’s a fantastic exploration of a man who lives through the tumultuous times from the French revolution to the Wall Street Crash (ironic re-reading this during the current global economic crisis!) to early Hollywood and the Great Exhibition of 1851. Zéla (“Matthieu, please.” as he frequently says) weaves himself into some of the important historical events of the last 250 years and exposes the effect of the times on the people around him.

Boyne doesn’t overthink the reasons for Zéla’s long life – he simply uses this plot device to show the insight of a man who has lived through many social changes. I think Matthieu mentions this a number of times, likening the McCarthy witch-hunts to the Terror in revolutionary France and sagely noting the “eventual transience of all political ideologies”.

The story itself bounces between the events of Matthieu’s past – especially his early life moving from France to Dover to the village of Cagely – and his current tribulations as an investor in a TV channel. The other events are interesting little anecdotal tales from other parts of Matthieu’s life which are colourful, funny and sometimes sad. What is interesting about Matthieu is that he lives life to the full at every stage of his existence. There’s a little comparison to the miserable immortals who bemoan their lives which I take to be a little swipe at [[Anne Rice]]’s melodramatic vampires!

The tale of his early life – the murder of his father and the later death of his mother at the hands of her second husband – and Matthieu’s unrequited obsession with his travelling companion, Dominique, is excellent work. You can see those formative experiences taking effect, and the decisions that Matthieu must make, especially when Dominique wants him to steal money from his best friend so that they can run away together. Boyne has written Dominique as a particularly unlikeable piece of work, a manipulative climber who uses Matthieu and discards him quickly when it looks like she has an opportunity of a relationship with a local land owner.

In the present day storyline, Matthieu believes that he’s looking at the premature death of another nephew and is steeling himself for the cycle to begin again when he realises that he hasn’t done enough to prevent the tragic deaths of his nephews throughout the years. He resolves to do so after the latest Tommy has a drug overdose (possibly because he’s been partially funding the boy’s addiction?) and decides to tell Tommy the story of his predecessors and his 250 years of life in order to shock him into going straight.


I’m incredibly fond of this book because John Boyne has managed to weave in important events of the last few centuries with a story about a man who has experienced all of these times. Imagine getting a first-hand account of the Titanic from an eye-witness: that’s the lure of this book. Matthieu Zéla’s first-hand accounts aren’t histories: they include the events in his life at those times – the association with Charlie Chaplin that leads to him meeting a future wife and losing her tragically on their wedding day, the revolutionary Frenchwoman whose fervour leads one of the Tommies astray and to his ultimate death on the guillotine.

Overarching all of this is an intelligent worldview that you imagine someone with 250 years of life might have: a knowledge of the transience of everything and the pervasiveness of human nature. Perhaps Matthieu’s two most important lessons are to enjoy the times you live in, and that friendship matters above all. Certainly that’s the message that seems to be coming across strongly toward the end of the book.

One of my favourite novels of all time, “The Thief Of Time” is well written, easily digested and remarkably mature considering the age Boyne was at the time he wrote this. It suffers slightly from a somewhat twee ending whereby Zéla starts to age after he breaks the destructive cycle of deaths in his nephews. I would have preferred an open-ended finish to the tale, suggesting that Matthieu would live to witness the thriving of the new line of his family after all this time.

All the same, this is one book I strongly suggest you read!

Tagged under:

Log In or Sign Up

Skip to toolbar