The Ruins of Time: Ben Woolfenden

Published by Corgi / Black Swan, 1992, 256 pages.

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

This quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero sets up the theme of this book. After Tom’s father retires, he becomes obsessed with tracing his family’s history. At first, Tom is bored and irritated by his father’s long accounts of what he has found, but finds himself drawn into the story.

The book moves between the past and the present, between the two sides of the family that came together to create Tom’s father. It all begins with William, a child from a poor family in Lancashire in 1830, scaring away birds from a field to earn a few pennies from the farmer. The death of his parents pushes him to leave the village, heading for Manchester.   

The enigma at the heart of the story is Elias Crane, Tom’s grandfather. Tom’s father never really knew him well—Elias was distant, a man who found it hard to show his emotions. But the discovery of a sepia photograph and a letter in Elias’s handwriting hold clues to his past. 

Having grown up in a loveless house with a stern father who could only punish and threaten, Elias becomes secretive and scornful of authority. “To have been forced to respect what he loathed, to fear where he should have loved, to have grown up to be lonely and secretive, always with an unnameable chill of dread about his heart—he saw how all these things conspired to make him what he was. And now he was a man, still he was powerless to shape his own fate.”

But he does get away, and it is with him that the paths of these two families converge.

This is a quick read, but perceptive about the damage that people inflict on each other. It also reminded me about our connection with our ancestors—whether we have anything to do with them or not, we carry their genes and their histories within us. It is moving, and well-written for a first book.

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