Suddenly I understand it. There is so much going on in Lifelode, by Jo Walton, that I'm not even sure I could list it all, let alone expound on it.
Let's start with the most obvious, interesting, easy to talk about fact of this book: its relationship with time. The whole book is told in the present tense--but the timeline jumps around. Every scene is in present tense, including flashbacks, memories within scenes, everything. There are a very few words in the past tense within the book outside of dialog. When it does appear, it's invariably referring to something that happened a moment ago in the same scene, not an earlier moment in time.
An example: Hanethe is helping with the harvest and thinking about how much she dislikes the job and always has.
She remembers, as she thrusts a gathered sheaf into the hands of the youngster behind, the harvest after the plague. Young Hanethe cuts and cuts, her legs trembling at every step, not daring to shut her aching eyes for a minute in case she falls asleep in the field.The narrative also skips around in time, not only from a distant future where several characters are discussing whether to write a book about the main events of the story, but laying down scenes out of order, introducing the character who arrived second, then later the one who arrived first, then later still showing the arrival scene of the second. We learn about the night the alarm was sounded and everyone armed themselves, and then we see the characters putting away their weapons. Several tranquil, domestic scenes later we learn what happened on the wall that night.
And the thing is, it's not awkward. So far, I'm pretty sure I haven't been confused once. I've been curious, yes, and really wanted to know what was going on, but not confused at all.
Another element of this relationship with time is that the main character, Taveth, can see through time a bit. When she's talking to someone, she sees shadows of their older and younger selves, who they have been and who they will be. She gets hints from these people of what might happen, though only slight--she doesn't converse with these shadows.
Even the reality of this world has a complicated relationship with time. Days pass differently depending on where you are geographically, and depending on which direction you travel in, the year you're gone might pass at home as a month or a decade.
It's confusing just to write about, right? Look how long this blog post is! But the thing is, it's seamless. I've read more confusing world building in nonfiction books, I kid you not. It's a smooth, seamless read, and the hints and indications you get out of order build the story in exactly the right way. It's a domestic fantasy, for the most part, about the relationships of the people at Applekirk and how a moment of crisis--one moment, as we clearly understand, no more nor less telling than any other moment in the centuries of this village--touches all those relationships.
This post is already huge, and I haven't even touched on the range and depth of the meanings of love that are addressed here (brief rundown: spouses, permanent pairings called sweetmates, casual lovers, the desire to hold onto your children, the rush of unexpected sexual desire, the affection you feel for an incredibly irritating 14 year old--especially when he was a sweet kid, and double especially when you can sort of see through time and know that he's going to be a good man when he grows up). Again, I'm pretty sure I'm not being hit over the head with it (though sometimes I miss it when books do try to bludgeon you, so corrections appreciated)--it's just there, as natural as breathing--this is a world in which all these loves exist, and here is how they work.
And of course the other topic I wanted to cover, which is Jo Walton's work in general and how you MUST read Ha'Penny and Tooth and Claw, and I must read The King's Peace and Among Others as soon as possible. Lifelode is deceptively simple, domestic, and not earth-shattering. But as my sister is fond of saying about her nephew: it's freaky smart.