Home » Book Review » Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time // by Dominic Utton

Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time // by Dominic Utton


//published 2014//

I read this entire book in a day – in snippets between many household chores on a busy Saturday.  It’s an epistolary novel, which I find incredibly difficult to resist and even harder to put down – just one more letter is so easy to say!!!

The main narrator is Dan.  He’s working for a newspaper in the city and has to commute from his suburb home every day via train.  The trains are invariably late, and Dan has had enough.  He finds the email address of the managing director and writes to him, telling the MD, whose name is Martin Harbottle, that he, Dan, will now be wasting as much of Harbottle’s day every day that Harbottle’s trains waste of Dan’s: Dan will write an email that will hypothetically take as much of Harbottle’s time to read as it took Dan to sit on the delayed train.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the story is really quite implausible on several levels, the main one being simply that Dan decides to pour out all of personal and work life to a complete stranger (especially incriminating information about the implosion of the newspaper where Dan works).  The second implausibility that actually nagged at me more was that it now seems like Dan is wasting his time twice – once on the train and again writing the emails!  As the book progresses, we get the impression that Dan is starting to write the emails while he is on the delayed train (which makes much more sense), but that didn’t seem to be what was going on in the beginning and it seemed kind of weird.

But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this read.  I actually liked Dan – I’ve read several reviews that said they couldn’t stand him, but he seemed like a pretty average guy to me, and I really appreciated the fact that, at the end of the day, he decided that his marriage and his friendship with his wife was important enough to preserve and build.  (I rarely skip to the end of books, but I did on this one – I really didn’t want to read a whole book only to find that Dan decided to skip out on his wife and have an affair because his “happiness” was more important than his wife and daughter.)

This is a rambling book, and if you aren’t interested in Dan’s stream of consciousness thoughts, you probably won’t enjoy it.  I found bits of it more boring than others, and there isn’t a really strong plot, but I found it a hard book to put down, in part, I think. because of the subtle humor throughout.  I definitely would have liked to have heard more from Harbottle himself – his emails always seemed too short and too infrequent, especially since I actually rather liked him better than Dan.  Harbottle is always careful to give the reasons for each train’s delay, some of which were more ridiculous than others –

On August 27 the train was late leaving Paddington due to its late arrival in Paddington.  This lateness subsequently caused it to lose still more time on its journey to Oxford.

[next email from Dan to Harbottle]

Thanks for your most recent reply.  It makes me feel so much better to know that the reason my train was late on Saturday night was…because it was late.  That’s some serious zen you’ve got going there, Martin.  That’s some major Buddhist mind-bending philosophical shizz you’re spouting.

At the end of the day, there was just enough to think about to keep me going on this book, and I’m going with 3/5 overall.  I actually did feel like Dan grew as a person throughout the story, and that part of that growth was his recognition of the fact that he had even more growth to do.  I ended the book feeling optimistic about Dan’s future – that even though some things were rough, that he was going to work forward.

I’m having a bit of a crisis right now.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed, like, but things are kind of falling apart – and I’m not sure (OK I have no idea) what I should be doing about it.  Even whether I can do anything about it.  All this stuff at work, and all this stuff at home: I’m part of it, it’s part of me, but I feel like it’s happening despite me, like it’s all happening to me, but like I’ve got absolutely no influence on what matters.  I’m not driving the train, Martin, I’m sitting on the train watching it all happen out of the window, powerless to do anything about where it’s taking me or how long it’s going to take to get there.

I should get off the train, shouldn’t I?  I should get off the train and start walking.  I should take charge of stuff, determine by own direction, be in control of how long it takes to get there.  It’s just that… I don’t know how to do it.

But at the end of the day, Dan does get off the train.  He realizes that in life you can either allow things to happen to you, or you can try to make things happen.  We can’t control everything, but there are many things that we can control, if we actually want to.

While Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time wasn’t the deepest or most inspiring book I’ve ever read, it still had a lot to offer: humor, an engaging narrator, and a few crumbs of thought to chew on.

4 thoughts on “Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time // by Dominic Utton

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