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BIG TIME
by Ben H. Winters
Mulholland, March 2024
2024 pages
$29.00
ISBN: 0316305778

These days tech billionaires, concerned that they won't have enough time to spend all of their money, are investing in life extensions schemes, from stem cell treatments to transfusions of blood from younger donors. They would be thrilled if the central conceit of BIG TIME were to be true: they could simply buy time.

As the book opens, we encounter Allie, a young middle school teacher who has been abducted while watching her child at a playground. It must be a mistake: she doesn't have any enemies or money for a ransom. Thanks to a moment of distraction, her cold-blooded and silent kidnapper crashes the car they are traveling in and Allie escapes, ending up in a hospital where everything gets even more confusing. She struggles to answer simple questions about her identity and feels her memories dissolving as she tries to focus.

In a nondescript office outside the nation's capital, Grace Berney, a public servant who is bored with her job and exhausted by caring for an elderly parent and a difficult teen, processes paperwork for a section of the Food and Drug Administration that regulates medical devices. When her boss asks her to work late to identify a port embedded in the chest of hospital patient who has lost her memory, she is touched by the fragile appearance of the young woman in a photo.

Told it's no longer a priority, that she can go back to her routine work, she finds she can't. That photo has awoken a sense of responsibility in her and she embarks on finding the woman, who she is sure is in trouble.

Meanwhile, as the hired kidnapper frets about the time it's taking to recover her quarry, Allie is struggling. Not only are her memories slipping away, someone else's memories are taking their place, and she wrestles for control of her identity as another woman's past crowds into her body. Someone has done something to Allie, and the key may be in an obscure paper outlining the idea that time has a bodily component, and if harvested could be transferred from one person to another.

In many ways, the plot is standard thriller fare. A shadowy organization has conspired to do something sinister, and ordinary people must rise to occasion to unravel a deep conspiracy while shaking off murderous pursuers. We've all read that book before. What makes this version so much more compelling is the way Winters plays with the underlying concepts of time and identity, using propulsive pacing to highlight ideas that are breathtakingly novel and provocative. There's a kind of poetry in

Allie's struggle to hang onto herself. Grace's transformation from being overwhelmed by the demands of her stalled-out life to principled avenger, acting on impulse is exhilarating.

One thing we can always count on from Ben Winters is a story propelled by a wildly inventive idea. In the case of BIG TIME, it works both as a page-turning thriller and as a philosophical journey that remains unsettling even after setting the book down.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2024

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