Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov

Can a book be historical and dystopian at the same time? Yes, it can. Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (trans. by Angela Rodel) is nothing short of mind-boggling, recreating twentieth century history, alongside an imagined future, where we have the capacity to choose which decade from the past we live in.

The premise of Time Shelter is relatively simple – an ‘enigmatic flâneur’ named Gaustine opens a ‘clinic for the past’ as a way of treating Alzheimer’s – each floor of the clinic reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time to a period that felt safe and familiar.

…for us the past is the past, and even when we step into it, we know that the exit to the present is open, we can come back with ease. For those who have lost their memories, this door has slammed shut once and for all. For them, the present is a foreign country, while the past is their homeland. The only thing we can do is create a space that is in sync with their internal time.

The central idea on which Time Shelter is built is reminiscence therapy, which is used extensively in care for those with dementia. However, Gospodinov takes the idea of reminiscence therapy and amplifies it. Later sections of the book describe the clinic becoming a huge success, with people other than those with dementia wanting to revisit the past. To manage the demand for the past, a referendum is held in each European country, to decide which decade they want to live in, and the protagonist reflects on the reasons and implications of those choices.

The ‘Referendum on the Past’ was my favourite part of the book. The historical detail for each country was engrossing and thought-provoking. From Spain who struggles to settle on a decade because of its ‘…long experience of being unhappy in its own way…‘, to the Scandinavian countries who are spoiled for choice because there were so few ‘unhappy decades’ in their recent history. In Sweden, it comes down to a choice between the mid 1950s and the late 1970s –

ABBA or the Poäng chair, for example, an IKEA creation from that same decade, such things turn eras upside down, not the gross domestic product and the export of wood and steel. In the end, despite the crises of the 1970s and the changes of government, despite the jump in gas prices and the subsequent new crisis, despite all of that, the dancing queen of the late ’70s overtook the Volvo of 1957 with its huge refrigerator… Romance no longer lay with the fridge, people felt like dancing… So, after the referendum, Sweden woke up to a new 1977.

The sections on Germany and the Eastern Bloc countries were fascinating – fraught with war, coups, dictators, and sieges – it made finding a decade in which to live peacefully, very challenging. These sections also highlight the dangers of revisiting the past, and although our protagonist knows when to leave Bulgaria ‘…before the trap springs…’, the same cannot be said for the rewinding of history in other places.

And upon turning back, they saw what was to come…

It is not revisionist history, it’s as it was, ‘…and so began the mass doubling of the happened and the unhappened….’ The descriptions of re-enactments of key historical events are, for many reasons, terrifying.

Gospodinov plays with scale in a clever way throughout the story. As mentioned, there are a number of sections and in each, he zooms in and out on the protagonist. And while the chapters on the referendum were fascinating for historical reasons, the chapters that focused on the intimate experience of history and memory were poignant.

When people with whom you’ve shared a common past leave, they take half of it with them. Actually, they take the whole thing, since there’s no such thing as half a past. It’s as if you’ve torn a page in half lengthwise and you’re reading the lines only to the middle, and the other person is reading the ends.

A large part of my work is supporting people who care for family members with dementia. Their experience of memory and history is particular, and for this reason I found this book extremely valuable – it’s a novel that deserves to be read slowly and to be pondered over.

The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.


It was time for lunch. We sat down on Little Five Corners at a place that used to be called Sun and Moon. At first glance, nothing had changed, even the name was still the same, the young man who came over to give us menus…resembled the poet-revolutionary Hristo Botev…The young man recited the lunch specials: Bulgarian yogurt, Bulgarian lamb with mint dip; Panagyurishte-style eggs from liberated (that’s how he put it) chickens, calf-head cheese with Brussels sprouts and Bulgarian spices, spelt rolls made according to a traditional recipe, and for dessert April Uprising cherry cake or Samokov-style crème brûlée.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 20): Belfast 14°-22° and Melbourne 12°-19°.

8 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s Winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. This is a great review. I borrowed this book from the library but didn’t get on with it. But it was me, not the book, and I mean to try it again some other time.
    It’s interesting to speculate what decade Australians would choose…

    • Thanks Lisa. It actually took a bit to get into this book but once I got a handle on the structure, I was engrossed. As I said, lots to think about (particularly the Holocaust and the fact that in reminiscence therapy, painful memories can surface, so you are left trying to decide what is ‘safer’ for a person – a familiar past with its trauma, or an unfamiliar present).

      • And sometimes what looks like a benign past (e.g. the 50s in Australia) can cause the resurfacing of a past that no one knows about e.g. undisclosed sexual abuse or other traumas not known to the therapist.
        I did a kind of reminiscence therapy with my father without knowing that it was what I was doing, but I knew to tread very warily around the tragic events in his life and would have been hard pressed to find a decade that was ‘safe’ for him.

  3. You’ve got me thinking about dystopian Hist.Fic. The most recent time travel novel I read was Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, which wasn’t really dystopian, though it had a very Covid-ish feel. I’ll have to think some more.
    As an Australian I’d vote for the 1960s and the beginnings of multiculturalism, though we had some terrible governments, perhaps I’d better say 1970s. But as the trashing of the Voice by the right shows, it’s probable half the people would vote for the 1950s.

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