The Thief of Time
  • The Thief of Time
  • The Thief of Time

The Thief of Time

3.8 6
by John Boyne

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John Boyne has become internationally known for his acclaimed novels Crippen and the bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Now, for the first time in the United States, comes the book that started the career of the author that the Irish Examiner calls "one of the best and original of the new generation of Irish writers."

It is 1758 and

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John Boyne has become internationally known for his acclaimed novels Crippen and the bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Now, for the first time in the United States, comes the book that started the career of the author that the Irish Examiner calls "one of the best and original of the new generation of Irish writers."

It is 1758 and Matthieu Zela is fleeing Paris after witnessing the murder of his mother and his stepfather's execution. Matthieu's life is characterized by one extraordinary fact: before the eighteenth century ends, he discovers that his body has stopped ageing. At the end of the twentieth century and the ripe old age of 256 he is suddenly forced to answer an uncomfortable question: what is the worth of immortality without love?

In this carefully crafted novel, John Boyne juxtaposes history and the buzz of the modern world, weaving together portraits of 1920s Hollywood, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash, and other landmark events into one man's story of murder, love, and redemption.

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Editorial Reviews

America magazine
The Thief of Time is a learned and at times provocative read.
This lively historical saga . . . is undyingly recommended.
The Sunday Express
Extraordinary.… The various strands of the story are resolved with a stylish twist and genuine warmth.
The Herald
A delightful epic, filled with twists and treachery, and vividly told.
Time Out
A minor masterpiece of organisation and historical sampling.
Sunday Tribune
Boyne is a skilful storyteller… The novel is superbly constructed.
Publishers Weekly
Published in the U.K. before his hits Crippen and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, this novel sails similarly historical currents with mixed results. Matthieu Zela is 256 years old in 1999, but doesn't look a day over 50. (Bafflingly-to himself, too-he simply stopped aging.) Loquacious Matthieu crisscrosses the centuries with wry, autobiographical narration, moving from his current incarnation as a satellite TV entrepreneur in London to his coming-of-age in the 1750s, when he leaves Paris for England with his young half-brother Tomas in tow and meets his one true love, Dominique Sauvet. Matthieu's one deep regret, however, isn't romance-related: of the 10 generations of Thomases descended from his brother, each has had his life cut short, "either by his own stupidity or by the machinations of the times." Matthieu's current nephew, Tommy, a wildly popular soap opera star, is a heroin addict and not long for this world. Matthieu vows to prevent his too-early demise. In between, Matthieu shares too predictable highlights from his brushes with world events (the French Revolution, the 1929 stock market crash, etc.) and famous people (Pope Pius IX, Charlie Chaplin, the Rosenbergs). The picaresque nature of this hopscotch through history's hot spots suits Boyne's big-canvas talent, but Matthieu, in his unexplained immortality, is more like a storytelling device than a fully realized character. This novel is not a follow-up but a practice run. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this imaginative work, the author of Crippen presents the life of Matthieu Zela, who has lived for 256 years without aging. Matthieu's first-person narrative weaves together three distinct threads: his current life in 1999, his early years with first love Dominique, and poignant episodes in between. These episodes include the French Revolution (1789-99), the construction of England's Crystal Palace (1851), and the Wall Street Crash (1929). Each chapter is almost a short story in and of itself, which makes reading the novel an initially confusing experience. Having all the time in the world, Matthieu drifts through life, never getting close enough to anyone to tell his secret. He looks after a series of reckless nephews (and great-nephews) named Thomas (or Thom, or Tomas) who seem doomed to die young. Matthieu's tortured love affair with Dominique also resonates throughout the years, influencing his many marriages and relationships. Boyne is creative and entertaining, particularly as he develops his characters. Recommended for public libraries. [Library marketing campaign planned; Boyle's best-selling young adult novel about the Holocaust, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, has been optioned for film.-Ed.]-Laurel Bliss, Princeton Univ. Lib., NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Boyne (Crippen, 2006, etc.) offers a historical fantasy about a 256-year-old man. Matthieu Zela is a fortunate man. He has discovered the secret of perpetual middle age, as Oscar Levant said of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Though never a father himself, he has lived through nine generations of nephews, each of whom, after fathering a son, has died in his 20s; Matthieu has been given their unused years. It's a silly idea, but it does allow Boyne to dip into history at will. Matthieu was born in Paris in 1743. After his stepfather murdered his mother and was executed, 15-year-old Matthieu left for England with his five-year-old half-brother Tomas. On the cross-Channel boat, he met 19-year-old Dominique, also fleeing France; the three became a family. Boyne moves back and forth among many time periods. There is Matthieu's coming-of-age year, 1760, and there is his present, 1999. In between, Boyne inserts several pieces of history, ranging from the 1793 Paris Terror to the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period. The constant is narrator Matthieu, who makes money and connections with improbable ease, whether working for the pope in Rome as an arts administrator in 1847 or falling into a role as TV producer in 1940s Hollywood. Unfortunately, Boyne has no feeling for the past, and Matthieu's voice is bland, so that even the guillotining of his first nephew counts for little; like the many other violent incidents, it is told with a practiced glibness. Boyne does a little better with Matthieu's origins (Dominique's death provides a rare moment of genuine excitement) and the present, in which Matthieu is trying to save his drug-addicted nephew, the star of a BBC soap, from yet another early grave. It's atough assignment, but Matthieu pulls it off; once said nephew is set for a long life, Matthieu can settle into old age. A gimmick in search of a plot, and far duller than it should have been, given the material.

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

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The Thief of Time

By John Boyne

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 John Boyne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8849-0


A Beginning

I don't die. I just get older and older and older.

To look at me today, you would most likely suggest that I am a man approaching fifty years of age. I stand at precisely six feet and one half inch in height – a perfectly reasonable stance for any man, you will agree. My weight fluctuates between 190 and 220 pounds – again, not unusual, although I am forced to admit that the number tends to swing from the lower to the higher range gradually as the year progresses, for I make it a standard exercise to go on a crash diet every January and do not allow myself to return to any form of gluttonous excess until after the month of August, when the chills set in and I find myself in need of a little gentle padding. I have been fortunate in that my hair – once thick and dark and blessed with a slight wave – has resisted the temptation to fall out altogether and instead has simply thinned slightly across the top and turned a rather attractive shade of grey. My skin is tanned and, while I will admit to a few small lines beneath my eyes, only the harshest of critics would suggest that I have wrinkles. Throughout the years, there have been those – both men and women -who have indicated that I am an attractive man, possessed of a crisp sexual allure.

The suggestion, however, regarding my age – that I am perhaps not quite fifty years old – would flatter me immensely. For it is many years now since I have been able to say in all honesty that I have only seen half a century. This is simply the age, or at least the visual representation of an age, at which I have been stuck for a large proportion of my 256 years of life. I am an old man. I may seem young – relatively speaking – and not physically dissimilar to a large proportion of men born while Truman was in the White House, but I am far from any flush of normal youth. It has long been my belief that looks are the most deceptive of all human traits and I am pleased to stand as proof positive of my own theory.

I was born in Paris in 1743, during the Bourbon dynasty, when Louis XV was on the throne and the city was still relatively peaceful. Obviously, I recall very little of the political times, but I do have some early memories of my parents, Jean and Marie Zéla. We were reasonably well off, despite the fact that France was then immersed in a series of financial crises; the country appeared to be living in the shadow of our frequent small wars which drained the cities of both their natural resources and the men who might help excavate them.

My father died when I was four, but not on a battlefield. He worked as a transcriber for a famous dramatist of the time whose name I could offer, but as he and his works have since been completely forgotten, it would mean nothing to you. I have decided, for the most part, to keep the unknown names out of this memoir in order to prevent myself from having to present a cast list at the start – you can meet an awful lot of people in 256 years, you know. He was murdered on his way home from the theatre late one night by – who knows? A sharp object to the back of the neck threw him to the ground and a blade across the throat saw him off. His killer was never caught; random acts of violence were as common then as they are today and justice as arbitrary. But the dramatist himself had been a kind man and he had allocated my mother a pension, and so for her remaining years we never went hungry.

My mother, Marie, lived until 1758, by which time she had married again to one of the actors in the theatre company where my father had worked, a Philippe DuMarque, who had delusions of grandeur and claimed to have once performed before Pope Benedict XIV in Rome, a claim which on one occasion was mocked by my mother, resulting in a severe beating from her charming husband. The marriage, while unhappy and stained with a recurring theme of violence, did however result in a son, a half-brother for me, named Tomas, which has since become a family name. Indeed, Tomas's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Tommy lives only a few miles away from me now, in central London, and we meet regularly for dinner, when I invariably 'loan' him money to pay off the debts he accrues from his extravagant and ambitious lifestyle, not to mention his – to speak plainly -pharmaceutical bills.

This same lad is only twenty-two years old and I very much doubt if he will live to see twenty-three. His nose is practically on fire from the amount of cocaine that he has inserted into it over the past eight years – it's constantly twitching, like the nose of a housewife witch – and his eyes wear a permanently glazed and giddy expression. When we dine together, always at my expense, he is prone to bouts of either nervous energy or severe depression. I've seen him hysterical and catatonic and am unsure which state I prefer. He laughs suddenly, for no apparent reason, and always disappears shortly after I have loaned him some more money when pressing business whisks him away. I would attempt to seek help for him but his lineage has always been troublesome and, as you shall see, every one of his ancestors has met with an unhappy ending so there is little point. I am long past the age when I will try to interfere in any of their lives. They don't appreciate my help anyway. I feel that I shouldn't grow too attached to any of these boys because the Tomases, the Thomases, the Thorns, the Toms and the Tommys invariably die young and there's always another one waiting around the corner to bother me. Indeed, only last week Tommy informed me that he has 'knocked up', as he so charmingly puts it, his current girlfriend, so I can only assume from experience that his own days are now numbered. It's midsummer now and the child is due around Christmas time; he has provided an heir to the DuMarque line and, like the mate of a black widow spider, has thus outlived his usefulness.

I might add at this point that it was not until around the end of the eighteenth century, at which time I was reaching fifty years old anyway, that I stopped the physical act of ageing. Until then I was a man like any other, although I always took a particular pride in my appearance — atypical of the times – and made sure to keep both my body and mind healthy, something which in itself wasn't to become fashionable for another hundred and fifty years or so. In fact, I seem to recall noticing, some time around 1793 or 1794, that my physical appearance was remaining intact, something which pleased me at the time, not least because to live to that age was practically unheard of in the late eighteenth century. By about 1810, it was frightening to me as by rights I should have looked like a man approaching seventy and by 1843, the hundredth anniversary of my birth, I knew that something unusual was occurring. By then I was learning to live with it. I have never sought medical advice on my condition as my motto has long been 'why tempt fate?' And I am not one of these long-living fictional characters who prays for death as a release from the captivity of eternal life; not for me the endless whining and wailing of the undead. After all, I am perfectly happy. I lead a constructive existence. I contribute to the world in which I live. And perhaps my life will not be eternal anyway. Just because I am 256 does not necessarily mean that I will survive to 257. Although I suspect I will.

But I am moving ahead of myself now by the best part of two and a half centuries so allow me to return for a moment, if I may, to my stepfather Philippe who outlived my mother only owing to the fact that he beat her one too many times and she collapsed in a heap on the floor one evening with blood emerging from her mouth and her left ear and never rose again. I was fifteen years old at the time and having seen to it that she got a decent burial and Philippe had been tried and executed for his crime, I left Paris with the infant Tomas to seek my fortune.

And it was as a fifteen-year-old boy, travelling from Calais to Dover with my half-brother in tow, that I met Dominique Sauvet, my first true love and quite possibly the girl against whom none of my subsequent nineteen wives or nine hundred lovers could ever quite compare.


Meeting Dominique

I have often heard it stated that one never forgets one's first love; the novelty of the emotions alone should be enough to ensure a long-lasting memory in all but the hardest of hearts. But, while this should not be too unusual for the average man who takes maybe a dozen lovers in a lifetime, along with a wife or two, it is a little more difficult for someone who has lived as long as I have. I dare say that I have forgotten the names and identities of hundreds of women with whom I have enjoyed liaisons – on a good day, I can actually recall only about fourteen or fifteen of my wives – but Dominique Sauvet is fixed in my memory like a landmark of when I left my childhood behind to begin a new life.

The boat from Calais to Dover was crowded and dirty and it was difficult to escape the stale, miserable stench of urine, perspiration and dead fish. Nevertheless, I was exuberant from having seen my stepfather executed a few days earlier. From the safety of a small crowd, I had willed him to look in my direction as he placed his head upon the block and he did, for a brief moment, and while our eyes met I feared that in his terror he did not recognise me. Although it chilled me, I was glad he was going to die. Throughout the centuries, though, I have not forgotten the image of the axe falling upon his neck, the sudden slice and the groan of the people, intermingled with a cheer and the sound of a young man vomiting. I remember once, when I was aged around 115, hearing Charles Dickens read from a novel of his which contained a guillotine scene and being forced to stand up and walk out, so disconcerting was the memory of that day a century earlier, so chilling the recollection of my stepfather smiling at me before his life ended, although the guillotine itself would not be introduced until the Revolution began, some thirty-odd years later. I recall the novelist pinning me with a chilly glance as I left, thinking perhaps that I objected to his work or found it dull, something which was impossible.

I chose England as our new home because it was an island, unconnected to France in any way, and I liked the idea of being in a place which was independent and entire unto itself. It was not a long journey and I spent much of it tending to the five-year-old Tomas, who was ill and kept attempting to throw up what was no longer in his stomach over the side of ship. I brought my brother to the railings and sat him down with the wind blowing in his face, hoping that the fresh air might help him somewhat and it was then that I noticed Dominique Sauvet, who was standing only a few feet away from us, her thick dark hair blowing backwards and picking up the light as she stared back towards France, towards the memories of her own troubles.

She caught me staring and stared back briefly before turning away. A moment later, she looked at me again and I blushed and fell in love and picked up Tomas, who instantly started to scream again in pain.

'Be quiet!' I urged him. 'Hush!' I did not want it to appear that I was incapable of looking after the child, yet I was also loath to allow him to wander around aimlessly, crying and screaming and urinating at will, like some of the other children on the boat.

'I have some fresh water,' said Dominique, approaching us and touching me on the shoulder lightly, her thin pale fingers glancing off that part of my skin which was revealed by the long tear in my cheap shirt, making my whole body burst into a flame of excitement. 'Perhaps that would calm him down a little?'

'Thank you, but he'll be fine,' I answered nervously, afraid to talk with this vision of beauty, simultaneously cursing my own ineptitude. I was just a boy and unable to pretend otherwise.

'Really, I don't need it,' she continued. 'It won't be long before we arrive anyway.' She sat down and I turned around slowly, watching as her hand slid down the front of her dress and then emerged with a small, thin bottle of clear water. 'I have kept it hidden,' she explained. 'I was afraid someone might try to steal it.'

I smiled and accepted the proffered bottle, watching her now as I unscrewed the cap and handed it to Tomas, who drank a little of it gratefully. Peace was restored to him and I sighed in relief.

'Thank you,' I said. 'You are very kind.'

'I made sure to carry some provisions with me when we left Calais,' she said, 'just in case. Where are your parents anyway? Shouldn't they be taking charge of the boy?'

'They lie six feet underground in a Parisian graveyard,' I told her. 'One murdered by her husband, one murdered by thieves.'

'I'm sorry,' she said. 'Then you are like me. Travelling alone.'

'I have my brother.'

'Of course. What's your name anyway?'

I extended a hand towards her and felt mature, like an adult, as I did so, as if the very act of shaking hands asserted my independence. 'Matthieu,' I replied. 'Matthieu Zéla. And this belching creature is my brother, Tomas.'

'Dominique Sauvet,' she said, ignoring my hand and giving us both a light peck on the cheek which stirred me even more. 'Pleased to meet you,' she added.

Our relationship began at that moment and developed later that night in a tiny room in a Dover hostel where we three took refuge. Dominique was four years older than me at nineteen and naturally had a little more experience in romantic matters than I had. We lay in the bed together, holding each other for warmth, and tense with our desires. Eventually, her hand slid down beneath the thin, moth-eaten sheet that barely covered us and roamed around my chest and below, until we kissed and allowed ourselves to become consumed with our passion.

When we woke the next morning, I was filled with fear for what had happened. I looked at her body beside me, the sheets covering her enough to hide her modesty but none the less causing me to feel a rush of desire once again, and was afraid that she would wake up and regret our behaviour of the night before. Indeed, when her eyes eventually opened, there was an awkwardness at first as she covered herself even further with the single sheet – thus revealing more of my own body to her which caused me no end of embarrassment – until finally she relented and pulled me to her once again with a sigh.

We spent that day walking around Dover with Tomas in tow, looking to the world no doubt as if we were husband and wife and Tomas our son. I was filled with joy, sure that this was as perfect a life as I could ever possibly have. I wanted the day to carry on for ever and yet I also wanted it to pass by quickly, that we might return to our bedroom as soon as possible.

But that night I had a shock. Dominique told me to sleep on the floor with Tomas and, when I protested, she said that if I did not then she would give me the bed and sleep on the floor herself, at which point I relented. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, why she was suddenly rejecting me like this, but could not find the words. I thought she would think me stupid, infantile, a baby, if I demanded more from her than she wanted to give, and was determined not to have her despise me. Already I was thinking that I wanted to take care of her, to be with her for ever, but I have no doubt now that she was thinking that I was only fifteen years of age and that, if she was to have any real future in the world, it was unlikely that it would be with me. She was holding out for something better.

A mistake, as it turned out.


January 1999

I live in a pleasant, south-facing apartment in Piccadilly, London. It is the basement flat of a four-storey house. The upper part of the property is lived in by a former minister in Mrs Thatcher's cabinet whose attempts to secure a place in the Lords were given short shrift by her successor Mr Major – whom he despised for an incident at the Treasury some years before – and who has since wound up in the less prestigious but far more financially rewarding world of satellite broadcasting. As a major shareholder in the corporation which employs my upstairs neighbour, I take an interest in his career and was partly responsible for his being granted a thrice weekly political chat-show, which has recently been performing badly in the ratings, owing to the general perception of him as a has-been. Although I find the public's belief that anyone from the previous decade is a has-been completely absurd – surely my own longevity is testament to that – I suspect that the man's career is coming to an end and I regret it, for he is a pleasant enough man with a taste for fine things, in which respect we are quite similar. He has been kind enough to invite me into his home on a number of occasions and I once dined off a rather fine piece of mid-nineteenth-century Hungarian dishware which I could have sworn I saw being made in Tatabanya while I was honeymooning with, if I remember correctly, Jane Dealey (1830-1866, m. 1863). Lovely girl. Fine features. Awful end. I could afford to live in the same luxury as my broadcasting friend but really can't be bothered. Right now, simplicity suits me. I've lived rough and I've lived well. I've slept on streets and collapsed drunk in palaces, a felonious vagrant or vomiting fool. I'll most likely do both again. I took the apartment in 1992 and have been here ever since. I've made it quite the home. There is a small vestibule as you enter the front door, leading into a tiny hallway which opens out into the living room – sunken by a step – with a beautiful set of bay windows. Here, I keep my books, my recordings, my piano and my pipes. Scattered around the rest of the apartment is a bedroom, a bathroom and a small guest room which is only ever used by my many times removed nephew Tommy, who calls around to see me from time to time, whenever he needs cash.


Excerpted from The Thief of Time by John Boyne. Copyright © 2000 John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Thief of Time 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1999, Matthieu Zela turned two hundred and fifty six years old though anyone seeing him would guess he is in his late forties. Matthieu has never understood why he simply stopped aging back in the late eighteenth century, but he has outlived nine generations of descendents of his late younger half-brother Tomas. That is not saying much since they all died in their twenties after siring a male offspring due to either insanity or events out of their control.---------------- Currently he resides in London where he earns a nice living as a satellite TV businessman. He worries about his nephew of the moment Tommy, a soap opera star, because he expects the lad to die soon especially since the youngster is out of control with a nasty heroin habit that makes him this generation¿s dolt. However, Matthieu vows not this time will his nephew pass on..---------------- This is a fascinating historical fantasy that is fun to follow though the TIME THIEF never decides between a gallop through major Western historical events of the last two and a half centuries like the French Revolution, etc or a current thriller to save the life of the nephew. Matthieu is an absorbing protagonist with his employment over the years being similar but modified to the era while he grieves his losses. However, one strike is that the audience never knows why he is immortal. Still overall this is a fine rapid dash through history.-------------- Harriet Klausner
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Louie Flores More than 1 year ago
Awesome concept