Review: Time Among the Dead, by Thomas Rayfiel

When I picked up Thomas Rayfiel's newest novel Time Among the Dead I was curious mostly because of the way in which it had been described to me. Perhaps due to misinformation, or perhaps in an effort to gain more readership, it had been illustrated as "ranking with other recent Neo-Victorian publications - Such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters - without having to resort to anything paranormal", and as "written in a British Regency style [reminiscent of] Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters." All I can say is, I hope that "Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters" is a band from the late 1800s that I've never heard of because the book lived up to none of its descriptors.

First of all, to describe something as Regency would be to say that it has been written in a style captured best by novels from 1811 to 1820. To describe something as Neo-Victorian would be to say that it has been written in a style that captures the essence of the Victorian era, that is 1837 to 1901. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, being based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility would be considered Neo-Georgian or Neo-Regency (because the source was published in 1811, but the original manuscript was written prior to 1796). Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë are all Victorian writers (not Regency) and they all wrote in very dissimilar fashions. 
What this novel should be compared to is Barbara Michaels' Mystery on the Moors (later retitled Sons of the Wolf) which is an epistolary novel written in the popular Neo-Gothic style (i.e. actually reminiscent of Jane Eyre) as adopted in the late 1960s.

Time Among the Dead focuses on the last weeks of an old man's life. His grandson has given him a journal, but it's never explained as to why. Did he want his grandfather to write about the past? About his current pain? About his wishes for the future? His will, perhaps? What we end up with is a few panicky entries from an old man who finally has time to sit and consider his life for what it has been - a disappointment.

Unfortunately, it's completely stagnant. The old man doesn't attempt to better his life, nor does he change his ways. In revisiting his past, it seems the reader is expected to acknowledge and accept his reasons for being the way he is. In the end, it seems that his tolerance for modernity and "the way things are" seems to increase only as it encompasses his former actions, but to what ends?

Written now, when gay men and women are struggling for acceptance and for equal human rights, what does it matter that an old man has become semi-tolerant of his grandson's potential proclivity towards homosexuality? What are we supposed to get out of this? A few shots of young man's bare chest and a shock-inducing (not) moment where the word "penis" is mentioned? The whole of the novel gives the impression of trying too hard to not try hard enough.

Fleshed out, it could be a really interesting study on sex and lables in whatever period it's supposed to be, and in the hands of a very great author, it could be a good novel. But the theme of homosexuality is so side-stepped and so carefully handled that all we get is limp prose in an impotent style.

Time Among the Dead
By Thomas Rayfiel
Permanent Press
(June 1, 2010)


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