Ocean of Minutes is another brilliant debut by an Asian North American author that came out last year. Thea Lim brings in an added twist to a now familiar structure of an outbreak narrative by introducing the element of time travel. What I immediately found interesting was that Lim chose to explore an alternate version of our recent history rather than to set her novel in near future. The narrative thus begins in 1981 and in a world that has been irreversibly transformed by a flu pandemic. Countries such as Singapore, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, England, and Iceland have fared better but most of the globe including U.S. has failed to contain the spread of disease.
Amidst such chaos, a company called TimeRaiser succeeds in building a time machine and offers shipments of the cure brought from the future. However, the price for the cure is high: one must sign up for years of indentured servitude in order to save their loved ones suffering from the flu. To coerce healthy people to be parted from their infected family and friends, the time travel company puts up advertisements everywhere: “There is no flu in 2002 and Travel to the future and rebuild America and No skills necessary! Training provided!” The protagonist Polly also signs the contract with TimeRaiser despite the uncertainties to save her boyfriend Frank. Like so many others, the couple promises to reunite in Texas in twelve years’ time when the contract is set to end.
As it is often the case with migrant workers who find themselves in vulnerable positions, Polly is scammed into getting a longer contract with TimeRaiser. Without notifying her, they reroute her to a different location, jeopardizing her chances of reuniting with Frank. Only after reaching her destination, Polly finds out that the United States has been divided into U.S. and America. More significantly, the costs for communication skyrockets, leaving the journeymen very little chance of reaching out to their surviving family members for help. It is on that exploitative system that the America rebuilds itself after a flu pandemic and the environmental crises that soon follows.
From Polly’s point-of-view, the narrative alternates between her present and her past. It is through her memory that the readers piece together her romantic relationship with Frank. A question that crept into my mind was, can their love endure the gulf of time and space that separates them? Will it all be worth in the end? As a character, Polly is not particularly likable. However, I sympathized with her on the accounts that she is unknowingly placed in a difficult situation in which everyone (except for a precious few) tries to take advantage of her.
Although subtly explored, Polly’s ethnoracial identity adds another layer to the chronomigration phenomenon. At first, she receives O-1 visa reserved for workers with special skills and is assigned to refurbish antique furniture. Although it is not mentioned that visas are determined by ethnoracial identity, she later observes that those who receive H-1’s are predominantly women of color. When Polly is caught trying to escape, however, she is demoted to H-1 and sent to work in a factory. In that context, she realizes she is identified by others as a person of color unlike before. As Lim mentions in her interviews, Polly’s identity as a white-passing Lebanese reveals how race intersects with gender and class in complicated ways. Also, the shift in how Polly is racially identified resonates with how Arab Americans have been categorized as both white and non-white historically in the United States.
As mentioned earlier, I could not help but root for Polly’s escape as more and more characters kept inflicting harm on her for their own benefit in this post-pandemic society. The only likable characters were fellow women workers at the factory who form a sort of a viable alternate kinship structure that cuts across ethnic identities. I will not further spoil the contents of the book. However, I did like that the ending was reasonable: neither purely optimistic nor pessimistic. I finished the book long time before I sat down to write the review. So, I cannot quite recall all the quotes that captured my attention. However, Lim’s prose is the most beautiful when she offers observations about love, memory, and passage of time.