The 2023 Booker Prize winner, Time Shelter, is an extraordinary book that touches mainly on our relations with history and our own past. Combining this with people with dementia and Alzheimer who live in the present but with a past memory, Gospodinov writes an interesting story of a man called Gaustine who, with the assistance of the unnamed narrator, opens up a clinic to treat people with such a diagnosis. Together, they create an atmosphere where dementia and Alzheimer patients can live in the time they remember. In other words, they are allowed to live in a time shelter. But would this be a solution to the problem or would it be the beginning of another set of problems? One has to read Time Shelter to find that out.
My interest in the book was roused by its unusual concept. I was curious to know the kind of story the author wants to say through this unusual clinic to treat dementia and Alzheimer. But I was surprised to find that the story had no direct dealing with Alzheimer or dementia. The idea of a clinic for those who have lost their present memory and live in the past is only a pretext for the author to delve into a deeper discussion about our relationship with our past, and how it, although we live in the present, dictates and dominates all our life moves, how we constantly seek a time shelter by reliving and yearning to go back to a time which is already passed. The author takes the reader through a meaningful conversation generating much food for thought.
The theme the author is developing here is can you step into a bygone story once again? In other words, can you, while being in the present, live in a re-enacted past? According to Gaustine, “the saying that you cannot step into the same story is not true”. So, he re-enacts the past in his clinic hoping they would ease the patients’ lives. This becomes more difficult than expected. Also, the concept catches the public like wildfire, and soon even the healthy wish to live in the past escaping from the present moment. Villages of past are built, and nations decide which decade they want to live in. The past gradually becomes present and the result is chaos and disorder. This shows us that one cannot step into the same story again. Times change. People change. And we cannot go backward and hide in time shelter; we must move forward. If there’s any message the story gives, that is that live life to the fullest not in a time shelter but in the present moment before our memories and bodies fail.
The story was undoubtedly built on a great premise. But reading it was not an easy task. In trying to create the past, the story is abundant with political history concerning Bulgaria, including the history of its communist dictatorship and the atrocities committed. For a reader who has no inkling of Bulgarian history, the story could be overwhelming, as it did for me. Too many political and historical details impeded the connectivity and coherence of the story, and there were times that I felt lost. But overall, it was a well thought out and well-researched book that deserves attention.