Oscar lives with his widowed dad in small-town Illinois during the years preceding the depression. Their domestic harmony is consolidated by a shared passion for the model railway layout filling the basement of their modest house. When the financial crash occurs, dad has to sell both house and railway to the bank, then head west to seek work. Oscar, left in the care of his cold-hearted aunt, is befriended by Mr Applegate, an impoverished mathematical genius, who teaches him about the newly discovered paradoxes of relativity. Applegate’s work as a night-watchman in the very bank where the train-set lies enables Oscar to rediscover his treasure, but in doing so he becomes involved in a bank-raid so terrifying that he is projected into a contortion of realities. The model railway becomes the space-time network across which he travels in search of his father, shifting in age as well as location as he does so.
This is a complex but fascinating journey for readers as well as for Oscar. Wells, a superb storyteller, nimbly plays with scientific and political conceits while convincingly evoking the bravery of a frightened child traversing the social badlands of the 1930s USA. On the way we enjoy the company of an intriguing female companion for Oscar’s time-travelling adventures, as well as cameo appearances by Alfred Hitchcock, JFK and Nelson Rockefeller, amongst others. Wells weaves recitations of Kipling’s If through the narrative, deploying it as both a key plot element and a foil to the hectic ethical conflicts of the period. Bagram Ibatouilline’s hyper-realistic paintings in acrylic gouache are reminiscent of a gentle, yesteryear version of childhood, consolidating the nostalgia, while contrasting with the grittiness, of the story. The book itself is a typical Walker production, strongly and beautifully constructed.