Themes Explored: time travel, dystopia, politics, genius, psychosis, friendship, first love, morality, ethics, right vs wrong, torture, sacrifice
Synopsis: If you could go back in time, what would you change? Em has nothing except the voice of the boy in the cell next to her and the list of instructions taped inside her drain. She’s tried everything to prevent the creation of a time machine that will tear the world apart. She holds the proof: a list she has never seen before, written in her own hand. Each failed attempt in the past has led her to the same terrible present—imprisoned and tortured while war rages outside. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: I vastly enjoy time travel and dystopia themed novels. However, these themes are rarely well combined into one narrative, especially in the young adult genre. Thankfully, All Our Yesterdays is brilliantly written and well-paced. This is actually surprising considering this is Cristin Terrill’s debut novel. The narrative follows two separate versions of the same character, Em and Marina. Em lives in a terrible future where she is imprisoned alongside her boyfriend Finn. Marina exists four years in the past and is a privileged rich girl whose greatest fear is if James loves her as much as she loves him. In this past time travel only exists in James’ dreams, but the past also holds the key to changing Em’s future. And this is her last chance at changing the past.
What I enjoy about this novel is that the narrative alternates between Marina and Em’s perspectives. While they are the exact same person, they are completely different. Em is broken and confident but Marina has a strong degree of self-loathing. The greatest part of this novel is the way Em will try anything to change things so that Marina will not have to experience the same horrors. Watching Marina constantly tear herself down is in contrast to Em confidence and self-love. I point this out because Marina’s greatest conflict is trying to overcome her self-loathing. The duel narrative allows the reader to see how Em/Marina has matured and adapted over the years. And it also raises some interesting narrative questions. Such as: what lengths would you go to save your past self from disillusionment? And would you do it if it meant saving your past self would erase your current existence? Terrill examines the notions of good intentions versus the greater good by examining Em and Marina’s actions.
Terrill also examines the concept of villainy. While Em knows the future, is the villain still guilty if no crime has been committed. Especially since the time machine was built by someone she idolized. So trying to prevent the future by stopping the creation of the time machine puts her in a moral conundrum. While this sounds like a typical time travel narrative, the details makes the novel unique. Em has tried and failed to change the future thirteen times. All Our Yesterdays details the fourteenth and last attempt by Em to permanently change things. What I appreciate about the novel is that Terrill uses the dual perspective to flesh out the backstory but never bogs down the narrative with descriptions and facts. However, Terrill drops the ball when it comes to describing the time travel concept. Her scientific descriptions were incredibly thin. For a young adult novel, the fact that Terrill includes even an illusion to science is a refreshing change. Though I would have appreciated a little more scientific depth. I guess I cannot complain too loudly since time travel is not real so the science is rather hazy.
Science aside, the time travel element adds a good twist to a by-the number dystopia tale. Thankfully, Terrill avoids the popular love triangle scenario. While Em/Marina used to crush on James, she is romantically involved with Finn. And there are no awkward scenes where Marina/Em philosophizes about her feelings for either guy. I am glad to finally read a young adult novel without a tortuous love triangle. These triangles are never done well and add nothing to the narrative or overall characterization. However, there were several elements that I did not enjoy. While Terrill examines the economics and politics of high society. She really drops the ball when it comes to Marina’s relationship with Luz. Marina’s parents ignore her and Luz is the only parental figure involved in her life. Unfortunately, Luz is nothing more than a stereotype. In this narrative, she is depicted as an unquestionably dedicated, loyal, and motherly figure to Marina. While there is nothing wrong with these qualities, I wish Terrill had explored the relationship in a slightly different manner. Luz is supposedly Marina only parental figure yet Terrill never shows this kind of interaction. The audience is only told that Luz is Marina’s surrogate mother but it is never shown.
Perhaps the greatest downside is the supporting characters. Em/Marina and Finn are the main characters. They are wonderfully developed and really jump off the page. Though Finn could have used some greater depth. However, the secondary female characters are absolutely horrific. James, his brother Nate, and several other secondary male characters are all intelligent and powerful. But Marina’s two female friends are depicted as being shallow, temperamental, and overly sexualized. While these characters are little more than props, I wish the secondary characters were not so uneven. I find it hard to believe that Marina did not have a single intelligent female friend. And all the women in James’ extended family are catty and overbearing. I would have appreciated some less stereotypical characters. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed All Our Yesterdays and hope to see more from the author.
All Our Yesterdays, 2013, Hyperion, ISBN 9781423176374