Consequences & Sacrifice in Cristin Terrill's All Our Yesterdays
I’ve been trying to pin down exactly why I enjoyed All Our Yesterdays so much, beyond that I’m a sucker for time travel stories. What I’ve come up with is that Cristin Terrill’s debut novel uses the time travel narrative to its fullest potential, exploring the nature of love, sacrifice, and the consequences of both.
All Our Yesterdays opens with Em, who is imprisoned in a secret facility, finding a list of instructions taped inside a drain in her cell. The instructions are written in her handwriting, but she’s never seen them before. Together with the boy in the cell next to hers, Finn, she escapes her imprisonment and travels back in time four years in attempt to stop the evil “doctor” who built the time travel machine that was used to disrupt the course of history and create a totalitarian-type government. In order for the machine to be destroyed, the doctor must be eliminated.
Except, the “doctor” is someone from Em and Finn’s past, their close friend and someone they both loved in their past. Killing him and stopping the time machine will also irrevocably alter their own lives.
Four years in the past, Marina pines for her neighbor and friend James. Both are privileged and sheltered, and it seems like James might be beginning to see Marina as something more than a friend. Then, a tragedy strikes James’ family and he changes, becoming obsessed with his studies and distant. Marina feels like she’s losing her beloved friend, but her loyalty endures.
These two stories intersect from both Marina and Em’s points-of-view, as each is faced with big questions, the answers to which mean big consequences and require difficult sacrifices.
All Our Yesterdays is a book that will be best enjoyed if read without knowledge of much of the plot details.
Seriously, y’all, if you’re going to read this novel, avoid Goodreads, which is riddled with pretty big spoilers that will seriously impact your enjoyment of this novel.
I don’t want to remember these things. But James always said time is complicated, that it has a mind of its own. Maybe this is its way of punishing us for messing with it.
I will say, however, that plot-wise, the loops involving time travel are generally neatly closed. There are very few moments in the time loop remotely resembling a cheat, which is refreshing, since most of the time travel fiction I’ve read in recently has left gaping holes in the loop unaccounted for.
The only niggle I have regarding this aspect of All Our Yesterdays is that there’s a largely unexplained theory regarding the sentient nature of time; time has a life of its own in this world. This felt like a bit of a contrivance in one or two critical scenes, but on the other hand, since the two perspectives the story’s told from—Em and Marina—are not scientific, it doesn’t feel problematic either. It’s understandable that the narrators would not have had more understanding beyond this, which was shared by the brilliant James.
Finn pulls the sugar bowl from my hands and slides it away. “Your parents are assholes. You don’t deserve them, and they definitely don’t deserve you.”
I stare at him, shaken. “I-I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about James.”
“I know.” He looks down at the sticky Formica tabletop. “Just thought it needed saying.”
I don’t know how to respond. It’s like he reached deep inside of me and pulled my darkest and most fearful thoughts out of the muck and into the sunlight for everyone to see. In a Denny’s.
Terrill doesn’t flinch from the hard ramifications of Em and Finn’s attempts to alter the past, their pasts.
By changing the past in order to save the future, they also risk altering their own present and future. The few days have have to stop the doctor are literally the last few days the pair have together. If all goes right, once he is killed, Em and Finn as they exist will disappear.
Brought together by the horrible circumstances of being on the run and then imprisoned, altering the past means potentially altering the very situation which connected them. Because I believed in Em and Finn’s romance, as well as their common drive to fix what’s broken with the world, this largely unspoken tension really worked for me.
If they stop the doctor, that means that they won’t have the chance to flee Washington, DC together. Which means, the conditions that resulted in their falling in love won’t occur. And, ultimately, they have to sacrifice that for the greater good.
I take one last deep breath and nod. I can do this; I have no choice. Finn pushes open the stairwell door, and I try to summon Marina’s attitude: insecure but territorial, compassionate but privileged.
Dual narration can be a tricky thing. I often find that it dilutes the story more than augments it. However, I can’t imagine All Our Yesterdays being told in any other way.
Marina and Em stand in stark contrasts to each other, representing the past and present.
Marina is tremendously privileged, and her naive perspective on her world, including her fierce loyalty to James, exemplifies sacrifice just as much as the hard, hard choices Em must make, which are informed by her hard-scrabble years on the run. I know quite a few readers have found themselves frustrated and annoyed by Marina, but for me her perspective was a refreshing contrast to the sort of tough-stuff action-oriented protagonists I’m used to reading.
When I read All Our Yesterdays, there was no indication that it was the first in a two-part series. I have mixed feelings about the fact that there will be a sequel. The novel ends on a perfect note, with a tremendously satisfying conclusion, and I don’t need anything else from this story. On the other hand, these characters worked their way into my brain in a way that’s lingered, well over a month after finishing All Our Yesterdays, so I can’t wait to revisit them.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.