“If it wasn’t some Epic Love Story, then it was just a tragedy.”

I’ve been waiting three years to read Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker (Allen & Unwin, 2021). And it did not disappoint. Although, as usual, time travel and I do not get on. I love the concept, but the details do my head in.

Waking Romeo is a retelling of Romeo & Juliet, from the point after they die, in the 2080s. They both survived Shakespeare’s ‘death’ (And he only wrote 35 plays by 2083.) Jules has horrific scars and an arm with no feeling. Romeo is in a coma.

There’s a strong influence on the story from Wuthering Heights. The book has a staring role. Ellis is from the time of Wuthering Heights, but he’s not who you might think he is. Due to Romeo’s coma, Ellis and, when he recruits her, Jules, have to Wake Romeo, before nightfall. But which nightfall? In which time period? And stop skipping through time, you two, you’re making my head spin!

“The fate of all life on Earth can be a bit much to process on a daily basis. But a tree? Now a tree you can fight for.”

As to be expected in a book about time travel, the action is set across three centuries, although the main events are in the future – from our perspective. Jules and Ellis often experience an event with Jules or Ellis from a different time (yes, my head is still spinning). They resort to asking, “What happened from your perspective?” Sometimes the answer is “No comment.”

“I wonder what exactly happened in that additional chapter between us.”

Jules’ narrative starts in 2083 and Ellis is at the end of time. In case you were wondering, there is an end to time. Additionally, time can break. At this time, I am broken… After Jules and Ellis meet (who knows when) they jump to 2056, as you do, in order to fix their timeline.

“Just…sometimes my past catches up with me.”

Back in the 2030s (I think) humanity discovered time travel, but only forwards. What could possibly go wrong? Unsurprisingly, it caused the apocalypse. Who wants their own shitty life when you might have a better one in the future? Thus the reader, from whatever time, lands smack bang in the middle of a dystopia, when we meet Jules and Ellis. And things are dire.

“I was wrong. There’s apparently room for much worse… I thought I knew what a tragedy was… This is real – real tragedy. It has stench and gore and a terrifying mess about it.”

I had this idea that once time travel messed up the world, doing more time travel could only make things worse. But what do I know? There’s experts who (supposedly) know how to fix it all.

“Though perhaps time really is more like a circle – no end and no beginning.”

Waking Romeo is a love story, but the romance has a twist. All the tropes of romance are interrogated (and found wanting):

  • love triangles
  • insta love (fka love at first sight)
  • true love
  • soul mates
  • girl hate over a boy
  • What even is love?

Feminism, toxic relationships, racism and ableism are all important themes driving the storyline. And the cause of all the drama – attempted suicide, and how it affects those left behind. I often have difficulty reading books with suicide in the story, but I didn’t here. Who knows why.

“I am sorry you were in a place where the light could not find you.”

Then there’s the ethical dilemma of putting a new-born baby in a time travel pod, setting the timer for a year, after a year, doing it again. That cannot be good for a baby’s developmental milestones. And after two years, is that baby newborn, or two years old? So many questions. Jules and Ellis may have the answers.

There’s much to love about Jules’ and Ellis’ story and much to scramble my brain. Ellis agrees with me:

“All this fluid nature of time shite – does your bloody head in.”