The Thief of Time: A Novel

The Thief of Time: A Novel

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 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, The Thief of Time, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312378042
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/22/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 766,293
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

John Boyne is author of the adult novel Crippen as well as the New York Times and internationally bestselling children's novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He has taught creative writing at the Irish Writers' Centre and at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. In 2005, Crippen was nominated for the Sunday Independent Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Boyne has also been awarded the Curtis Brown Prize, shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize and Italy's Paolo Ungari Literary Award for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Boyne's work has been translated into twenty-one languages. He lives with his partner in Dublin.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 A Beginning,
Chapter 2 Meeting Dominique,
Chapter 3 January 1999,
Chapter 4 Living with Dominique,
Chapter 5 Constance & The Movie Star,
Chapter 6 February-March 1999,
Chapter 7 Travelling with Dominique,
Chapter 8 The Opera House,
Chapter 9 April 1999,
Chapter 10 Sticking with Dominique,
Chapter 11 The Games,
Chapter 12May-June 1999,
Chapter 13 Working with Dominique,
Chapter 14 The Terror,
Chapter 15 July 1999,
Chapter 16 Missing Dominique,
Chapter 17 With the Bulls and the Bears of The Great Society,
Chapter 18 August-September 1999,
Chapter 19 Fighting with Dominique,
Chapter 20 The Fictionalise,
Chapter 21 October 1999,
Chapter 22 Conspiring with Dominique,
Chapter 23 Off Pinks,
Chapter 24 Leaving Dominique,
Chapter 25 November-December 1999,
Chapter 26 An Ending,

Reading Group Guide

1.) The Thief of Time flashes back to Matthieu's past throughout the novel. What possible reasons could the author have had for using this structure? What effect did it have on your experience reading the book? Did it contribute to your connection with the main character or did it make you feel distanced because of the different settings?

2.) How did you feel about the way Matthieu handled his relationships with Tomas's descendants? Did you think that he should have maintained his pattern of acceptance for their expected deaths?

3.) Because of their behavior, did the nephews seem to get what they deserved? How much can we expect people to change the way they act?

4.) How does Dominique's character compare to the other women Matthieu gets involved with throughout his life? In what ways, if any, do you feel she affected his future relationships?

5.) Throughout the book events take place that bring into question the issue of morality. Discuss one of these events and explain whether or not you believed certain actions were justified due to the circumstances.

6.) What if you were immortal? Considering Matthieu's experiences, is immortality an enviable situation or one that is best avoided?

7.) In chapter ten Dominique tells Matthieu that, "You're as closed up as I am. You keep everything in. You don't offer me any more knowledge of yourself that I do to you" (Pg. 109). Would you as a reader agree with this quote? Do you feel that Matthieu's character maintains this attitude towards the people in his life later, using his agelessness as an excuse?

8.) How did the early chapters about Matthieu's coming of age and his past in Paris affect the way you related to his adult character? How might growing up in a previous century change your character.

9.) Were you in favor of Matthieu's resolution to try and save his nephew? If you had a choice between eternal life and the death of another person, what would you choose?

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Thief of Time 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 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
IreneF on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of a man who ceased aging in the 18th century--an interesting tale, an engaging read, but you don't get the feeling of being immersed in another era in the historical sections, which is something I value highly in a historical novel. The book is a series of anecdotes interspersed with continuing sections of the 256-year-old hero's teen years and his most recent years. It jumps around and large sections of his life are missing. I didn't find it crude or raunchy but I didn't find it addictive, either.
TheLibraryhag on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Matthieu Zela is 256 years old. He does not know why or how but around age 50 he just stopped aging. Thoughout his life he manages to keep in touch with the progeny of his brother, Tomas, who all seem to have unusually short lives. Matthieu tells us his life story in vignettes that center around his many wifes and many nephews, along with the story of his first love that is told throughout the entire book. I found this book addictive. It is well written and engaging.
JimRGill2012 More than 1 year ago
Boyne’s first novel is a uniquely constructed blend of three narratives that are connected by an equally unique protagonist/narrator, Matthieu Zéla—a 256-year-old man who has stopped aging and is seemingly immortal. The first narrative tells the story of Zéla’s youth in 18th century France and England. This tale focuses mainly on Matthieu’s unrequited love for a woman named Dominique, who—for various reasons—poses as his sister during their travels through the English countryside with Matthieu’s younger half-brother Thomas. Another narrative strand, episodic in nature, follows Matthieu through his involvement in numerous historically significant events such as the Reign of Terror during the French revolution, the founding of the modern Olympic games, the film career of Charlie Chaplin, and the Wall Street crash that precipitated the Great Depression. The final narrative is set in contemporary London, where Matthieu works as a television executive and assists his nephew Tommy (a descendent of his 18th-century half-brother), who is a drug-addicted soap opera star. Although the narratives loosely align with three developmental stages in Matthieu’s life—namely youth, middle-age, and maturity—Boyne makes little effort to structure the episodes of each narrative strand in any way that would suggest thematic resonance. Indeed, they are woven together in a seemingly random fashion. Consequently, while Boyne’s writing is clear and crisp and Matthieu’s narrative voice is well developed and distinct, the overall story hardly qualifies as a conventional novel featuring a traditional plot structure. Furthermore, Matthieu never bothers to discover why he stopped aging and why he continues to live; thus, the mystery behind his immortality is never revealed. *The Thief of Time* is an enjoyable and, at times, thrilling read, but it never quite “clicks” as a unified novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simplistic plot development.
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Louie Flores More than 1 year ago
Awesome concept