Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

Jeff Winston is 43, his life at a dead-end, when he dies suddenly — and wakes up back at college in 1963, with full knowledge of the intervening twenty-five years. He has the chance to create a better life for himself, and Jeff seizes the opportunity with gusto, placing bets and making investments that leave him a very wealthy young man. Jeff makes a hash of trying to impress his old wife this time around, and isn’t really keen on the heiress he eventually partners; but Jeff does love Gretchen, the daughter resulting from that relationship. So Jeff has pretty much made it — until he reaches the age of 43, dies at exactly the same moment, and returns to 1963, with the previous quarter-century erased from all reality, except in Jeff’s own memories.

And so the cycle repeats, with Jeff living out his life anew, able to remember each iteration but not to make any lasting change — until, in one ‘replay’ (as Jeff calls these iterations), the anomaly of a blockbuster movie he’s never heard of before leads Jeff to Pamela Phillips, the film’s maker and a fellow replayer. Perhaps inevitably, as the only two who know (or could ever understand) what the other is going through, they fall in love. But they discover a pressing issue: the beginnings of each replay are becoming ‘skewed’; though the moment of death for both Jeff and Pamela remains the same, the time their awarenesses return to is growing later and later — so much so that they may only have a handful of replays left.

I came to Replay with a certain amount of anticipation: it won the World Fantasy Award, and was reprinted in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series a few years ago, so clearly it had a high reputation. There was also the general sense of apprehension one often has on reading a ‘classic’ (even one that’s only twenty years old), wondering if it will stand the tests of time and of familiarity with its themes. Well, there was no need to be concerned this time — Replay is a wonderful book that deserves all the praise it has been given.

It’s important to say first what Replay is and isn’t about: it’s a time travel story, but not one about time travel per se; Grimwood attempts no real explanation of why the replays are happening. Rather, he is much more interested in the emotional ramifications of the premise on his characters, and it’s here that the novel really shines. Each replay is different, as Jeff chooses different paths through his life; and these never feel arbitrary — there’s a logic to their progression. He starts off, as one might in his situation, using his knowledge of the future to improve his lot materially. Then he moves to trying (unsuccessfully) to change history for the better; learning from his first replay to create greater contentment in his second; descending into hedonistic nihilism in the third when it becomes clear that nothing he does will last; and so on. And it rings true at every stage.

The interplay between Jeff and Pamela also changes subtly each time they meet, as their different experiences change them; and this too remains believeable throughout. There’s a moment towards the end that particularly made me smile (I’ll not elaborate on it, to preserve the effect), when Pamela reacts to Jeff in a way he isn’t expecting; and, as readers, we can see the matter from both sides — and have sympathy for both characters. The final position of the protagonists’ relationship is also unexpected and yet, with hindsight, is probably just as it would be in reality. It’s this emotional authenticity that makes Replay such a joy to read.

Something else that makes Replay a joy is the way it’s written — not so much individual nuggets of prose (though it has its share of them, such as the passage describing what goes through Jeff’s mind as he dies for the first time), as the way the novel is structured, and its general tone. There are a few times when the book gets tedious (Jeff’s hedonistic period drags in particular); but, generally, Grimwood knows exactly when to throw something new into the mix to move the story forward, whether it’s Jeff’s discovery of other replayers, or… well, find out for yourself. There’s also a very welcome lightness of tone to the book — not an absence of seriousness, but an energy to the telling. One useful function of this is to stop this moral tale feeling too preachy. There were a few a moments when I felt that Grimwood-the-author was lecturing me-the-reader, but they are few; even the ending, with its moral of ‘make the most of the life you have’, doesn’t really feel didactic, because the story has made the case for that viewpoint so persuasively.

Apparently Grimwood was working on a sequel to Replay when he died (at the sadly young age of 59). I’m ambivalent towards the idea of a second book: on the one hand, if he could have made it as good as this, I would love to find out what he had planned. On the other hand, Replay is fine as it is, needs no embellishments, and deservedly puts its author’s name down in history as one of the greats. Replay was not the first text to examine the question ‘what if you could live your life again?’, and it certainly wasn’t the last — but, in its elegance and eloquence, it must surely be one of the best.

2 Comments

  1. Great review, David. A friend of mine on Goodreads has recommended this book too – it looks like a great read. Must pick it up soon.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    21st March 2010 at 10:14 am

    Thanks! You should definitely read it — I’m sure you’d love it.

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