The best books on mysterious time travel

The Books I Picked & Why

The House on the Strand

By Daphne du Maurier

The House on the Strand

Why this book?

I love the idea of time travel – if it’s backwards. I have no desire to see what things might be, only I’m constantly fascinated wondering how things were. When I visit an historic house full of antique furniture and ancient portraits hanging on the walls, weird objects whose use is now forgotten, I long to know what it was like to live there. The House on the Strand transported me into the distant past of medieval England in such a way that I was living the experience, just like the time traveller himself.  

There are numerous devices for spiriting someone into the past, in this novel it is a scientific experiment, involving taking a drug. The protagonist is Richard Young, and he becomes entranced by the lives of people who lived 600 years ago. When Richard time travels, he becomes ‘attached’ to Roger, a steward. Roger is the link. The two men are quite similar, and each time Richard returns to the past, Roger seems to be acting as his guide. No one can see the modern Richard so he is always an observer who cannot affect any events he witnesses, though he desperately wants to. 

What I particularly enjoyed about this novel is how the past becomes both more real and more important to Richard, than the present. Richard (and Roger, the steward) fall in love with Isolda whom Roger is trying to help escape from an unhappy marriage. An interesting aspect of this time travel book is that Richard must take mind-altering drugs to journey into the past and they have side effects; indeed, it is never clear if Richard is really experiencing the past or the drugs are causing hallucinations. He’s warned to stop, but how can he? He must find out what happens to Isolda… He must take one last trip. 

If you’ve ever been to Cornwall, you will also appreciate that Daphne du Maurier writes so evocatively about the landscape that you can see it.


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Playing Beatie Bow

By Ruth Park

Playing Beatie Bow

Why this book?

I think of this book more as a ‘time slip' novel, than a 'time travel' novel, because the main character, Lynette Kirk (later calling herself Abigail), doesn’t mean to go back in time, she slips back into the past, enabled by a fragment of old cloth.  

The novel is set in Australia, and I read it whilst living there so it had a particular resonance. The notion of place and our relationship to it runs through the whole book. Ruth Park used real places in Sydney for her setting, focusing much of the story in the Rocks, which was a poor slum area in the 1800s. Lynette, once she’s in the past, can’t get back to her real time and that becomes quite frightening, especially since she’s left behind a loving family - not to mention running hot water and electricity. 

I loved all the details, like cleaning your clothes with vinegar and the way the people lived then.

A great read for children. It won awards in the 1980s when it was published and was turned into a play too.


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A Traveller in Time

By Alison Uttley, Phyllis Bray

A Traveller in Time

Why this book?

This is a quiet book, one that slips over you gently and pulls you in… to the past. There is a lovely moment, early on, a ghostly moment, when the heroine, Penelope, opens a bedroom door, and stops short. In the room are four ladies, playing a game with ivory counters. They wear stiff brocade and ‘their pointed bodices were embroidered with tiny flowers.’ It’s a book to give you shivers – but soft ones. The book is strangely complex and rather melancholic and incredibly credible. It makes you aware of what a brief time one has on this earth, and how we too will become simple memories.  


Penelope is a solitary child and a bit of a dreamer. She is sent to recuperate at Thackers, an old house in Derbyshire. Here, gently and without warning, she glides into Elizabethan times. She witnesses a family trying to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from her prison in nearby Wingfield Manor. Penelope knows the tragic end that awaits the Scottish queen, but being herself like a ghost in the past, can do nothing to alter it. As in The House on the Strand, Penelope falls in love with a character long, long dead but in this novel, her beloved can at least see her, and they share their first kiss.

 “It was neither dream, nor sleep, this journey I had taken, but a voyage backward through the ether.” 


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The Sterkarm Handshake

By Susan Price

The Sterkarm Handshake

Why this book?

In The Sterkarm Handshake, the device for time travel is simply a tube; not magical, but scientific, down which modern ruthless developers travel back to 16th century Scotland. Here they meet with equally ruthless highlanders. The scientists are planning to plunder Scotland’s resources (the 16th-century locals have been plundering roundabout for years), and of course, the modern developers run into problems. As in all books of this genre, the characters who travel through time may want to fit in or may choose to reject what the past has to offer. 

The heroine, like similar time-travellers, falls in love with a long-dead character and here, there’s also the possibility of the 16th century Scots coming up the tube to 20th century England – a good twist. There are also some very satisfying links between past and present, moments where you smile and think, Ah, how clever!


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Tom's Midnight Garden

By Philippa Pearce, Jaime Zollars

Tom's Midnight Garden

Why this book?

Perhaps not so much time travel as a ghost story… Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle. He is lonely there with no friends to play with. One night, though, he hears the clock striking thirteen and discovers a secret garden where he meets Hatty. He soon understands that his new friend is living in another time to him and that to her, Tom is a sort of ghost.  He visits the garden on several occasions and each time Hatty has aged, and he has not.

It is a book about relationships, growing up and the passage of time. Beautifully written. Charming. A book you’ll remember for a long time.


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