Abigail’s journey through time takes her to 1873 Sydney, where she sees her hometown as it was over a hundred years ago. It is significant that Abigail Kirk is flung backwards to 1873 specifically, a time during which the colony of New South Wales was in a chaotic infancy. At the start of the novel, Abigail herself is at a crucial beginning-point in her life—she has not yet figured out what she believes, or who she wants to be. At first Abigail sees time as a tormenting force that has trapped her—she does not recognize why the past is relevant, and cannot see how or why the generations of untold history that have led up to 1873 and the generations that will proceed from it involve her. As Abigail gets to know the Bow family and observes their own unique relationships to time and history, however, she discovers a new appreciation for how time works, and how the past is not a stagnant, far-off thing but a living, breathing part of the present.
When the novel begins, Abigail is not particularly interested in the past, history, or how time affects herself or those around her. Yet Abigail’s mother Kathy runs a vintage shop, and her father Weyland is an architect—in other words, Abigail’s parents’ professions are intimately concerned with the past and the future, respectively. Abigail is proud of her parents’ successes—she delights in finding vintage goods in her mother’s shop and using them to make her own clothes, and despite her self-professed hatred of her father, she is privately proud of his accomplishments—but on the whole, Abigail has no particular concern with either history or innovation as concepts. The journey of the novel is partly Abigail’s journey toward understanding how the flow of time works, and how the past informs the present. Indeed, by the time Abigail returns from her travels, she is more deeply interested in the neighborhood she lives in, in the ways her actions stand to affect others, in the history of those around her, and in the way time ferries the lessons, traditions, and legacies of the past into the present.
During her stay with the Bows, three major characters speak to the ways most humans conceive of, observe, and interpret time. Granny Tallisker is obsessed with the past and future; her preoccupation with the Gift handed down through seven generations with her family, and ensuring it is preserved at any cost, speaks to a fixation mainly on the weight of the past but also the unknowability and untamable nature of the future. Judah Bow, a seafaring free spirit who has no interest in his past or in the tales of the future Abigail presents him with, has committed radically to living in the present moment, and honoring only the slice of time directly in front of him. In Beatie Bow, Abigail encounters someone whose fears of and need to tame the future have overwhelmed her; Beatie is petrified that she will be the recipient of the fearful Gift of clairvoyance, and yet is also desperate to know how the children in the playground of the Mitchell building knew her name. Beatie, therefore, is both frightened of the ability to commune with the future, and desperate to know what it holds. As Abigail watches the Bows struggle against their attempts to contain, avoid, or manipulate time, she slowly and subtly learns that time cannot be wrangled or plotted towards or against. Abigail resigns herself to being a pawn of time as she takes up the duty of being the Stranger who will, at some unforeseeable point, rescue the Bow family Gift, and as she slowly learns this lesson in patience and surrenders to time itself, she finds that time passes more quickly and yet holds more within it than she ever dreamed.
When Abigail returns to the present and finds that not even a full minute has passed in the “real world,” she is struck by how much has transpired in between two strokes of the Town Hall clock. Later, overwhelmed by how badly she misses the Bows, and by how sad she is that there seems to be no trace of them in her present life, Abigail considers how time compresses all that transpires within it—love, loss, happiness, and sorrow. Abigail laments how the Bows seem to have been swallowed up by the “black vortex” of the past. However, when Abigail returns to Sydney after years of living abroad and is introduced to Justine Crown’s brother Robert Bow, a direct descendant of Gibbie Bow, Abigail begins to see that time is not like a cruel, ravenous vortex that just swallows people up and loses them to the future, but rather more like a river, whose source and sea are one and the same, and which ferries memories and legacies through the years and generations.
Through Abigail’s journey, Park makes a nuanced and complex point about how the nature of time itself dictates forward motion, but that this constraint does not necessitate losing sight of the past, or disregarding one’s present. By the time she returns to her own world, Abigail has encountered—all within one family—people obsessed with the past, with the present, and with the future. In experiencing time through the Bows, and by observing their mistakes and successes in conceiving of how time and history work, Abigail emerges from her journey more in control of her relationship to time and the past. She recognizes the potent power of history, despite the way any present moment seems to engulf all that came before it, and at last sees that time is all truly connected.
Time and the Past ThemeTracker
Time and the Past Quotes in Playing Beatie Bow
“What’s your name?”
Abigail scowled. “Quit having me on, whoever you are. That’s the name of a kids’ game.”
“I ken that well enough. But it’s my name. Beatrice May Bow, and I’m eleven years of age, though small for it, I know, because of the fever.” Suddenly she grabbed Abigail’s arm. “Dunna tell, I’m asking you. Dunna tell Granny where you come from, or I’m for it. She’ll say I’ve the Gift and I havena, and don’t want it, God knows, because I’m afeared of what it does.”
The first thing was their kindness. How amazingly widespread it was. […] They had taken responsibility for her, nursed and clothed her. Someone had given up her bed, probably Beatie; no one had complained when she was snappish and rude about Dovey's best clothes, about the lack of sanitation; no one had condemned her unsympathetic attitude towards Gibbie.
“I'm not kind,” said Abigail with a sickish surprise. “Look how I went on with Mum when she said she wanted us to get together with Dad again. Look what I did to Dad when I was little, punched him on the nose and made it bleed. Maybe I’ve never been really kind in my life.” […] These Victorians lived in a dangerous world, where a whole family could be wiped out with typhoid fever or smallpox, where a soldier could get a hole in his head that you could put your fist in, where there were no pensions or free hospitals or penicillin or proper education for girls, or even poor boys, probably. Yet, in a way, it was a more human world than the one Abigail called her own.
“I wish I could stay awhile,” she thought, “and find out why all these things are. But I can't think about any of this till I get home. Getting home, that’s what I have to plan.”
“I've nothing to do with it!” cried Abigail. “I came here without wanting to and I want to go home. I've a life of my own, and I want to live it. My mother, I miss her, don't you understand?” she said chokily. She thought fiercely, “I won't cry, I won't.” She waited for a moment, and then said quietly, “I'm not your mysterious Stranger. I'm just someone who came into your life here in some way that's a riddle to me. But I have to go home, I don’t belong here. You must see that.”
“We canna let you go,” said Mrs. Tallisker. She had relinquished Abigail's hand and was sitting up against her pillows. Except for her sunken eyes she looked almost like her own dignified strong self again.
“But we canna let you go until you have done whatever it is the Stranger must do to preserve the Gift.” Dovey was distressed. “Oh, dear Abby, it may only be for a little while and then we will help you go to your own place. We do understand what you feel, that you long for your ain folk, but we canna let you go . . . you are our only hope, you see.”
In a way she felt as she had felt when her father went away and left her. Fright, anger and helplessness, the sense of being nobody who could make things happen. But then she had been only ten. Four years of schooling her face to be expressionless, her thoughts to be her private property, had not gone to waste.
After her first despair, she thought, “I won’t let them beat me. If that dress is hidden around the house I’lI find it. Or I'll bribe Beatie, or coax Judah, into telling me where it is.”
She had learnt a lot about herself in this new rough world. Her own thoughts and conclusions of just a month before filled her with embarrassed astonishment when she reviewed them.
“What a dummo I was! I knew as much about real life as poor little Natty.”
“I just want to go home, you know,” whispered Abigail.
“You're as restless as a robin, child,” said Mrs Tallisker. 'But 'twill not be long now.”
There was a great difference in Mrs. Tallisker. She had, all at once, become older and smaller. Only a few weeks before she had towered, or so it seemed, over Abigail. Now Abigail was almost as tall. Her skin had crumpled more deeply, more extensively, like a slowly withering flower. She could not work as hard as before, but sat more often in the parlour with Gibbie, knitting thick grey socks for Judah.
“Aye,” she said with her sweet smile, as Abigail secretly stared at her, "tis a fearful effort to give out the Power when it has decided to leave. If I could do what I did for you, child, you can give me a little of your time, inna that fair enough?”
“Yes, of course,” said Abigail, but in her heart she was grudging.
“’Tis here I live, do you see, in 1873, and my labour is here, and my own folk, and I'm thankful to God for both. So that's enough for me.”
“But men landing on the moon!” cried Abigail. “Don’t you think that's fantastic?”
“Damned foolishness, I call it,” [Judah] said, and flushed. “Your pardon, Abby, for a word Granny would thicken my ear for, but 'tis no more and no less. What good to man or beast is that bare lump of rock?”
“At least it makes the tides,” snapped Abigail, “and where would you be without them?”
He laughed. “True for you, but no man has to go there to press a lever or turn a wheel for that!”
Having failed to interest him in the future, she turned to the past, and asked him was he ever homesick for Orkney, as she knew Dovey was.
“Not I,” he said. “Why, 'tis the past, and dead and gone. I'm a New South Welshman now, and glad about it, aye, gey glad!” His eyes danced. “Ah, I'm glad to be alive, and at this minute, I tell ye!”
“Stay awhile with us,” begged Dovey the next day, “for you're one of the family, Abby, true!”
“No,” said Abigail. “I have to go home; you know that.”
Her green dress looked strange to her; it had been so long since she had seen it. She saw it was not very well made; it was not worthy of the lace-like crochet. Abigail put on the dress. It fitted more tightly across the chest. My figure’s coming at last, she thought. Inside she was cold and without feeling, like a volcano covered with ice.
In a flash the study vanished and Abigail was on a ship. The waves ran along the side, leaping and hissing. They were as grey as marble. The ship rolled and creaked. There was a drumming from up in the air, where the wet sails flickered out showers of salty drops. But she felt no movement. Muffled in his pea-jacket, a woolen cap on his bright head, Judah sat on a roll of canvas, mending some ship's gear, or so she thought. He had not got older as Beatie had.
“Judah!” she cried joyfully, but he did not look up. The pulley and rope in his fingers changed to a knife and a little wooden figure he was whittling. Somehow she knew it was herself. With an exclamation she could not hear, he tossed it overboard, where it turned into Abby herself, clad in Dovey's blouse and serge skirt, rising stiffly up and down in the waves like a statue or a ship's figurehead.
“Oh, Judah,” sobbed Abigail, “how could you?”
It was amazing, terrifying, that all signs of the family's life could have so completely vanished, as if they had never been. It was as if time were a vast black hole which swallowed up all trace of human woes and joys and small hopes and tendernesses. And the same thing would happen to her and her parents.
“Now then, start from the very beginning and tell me about everything. Did you go to Oslo University? Did you have any romances with glamorous Norwegians?”
“Oh, three or four.” Abigail smiled. “They're irresistible people. Not serious though.”
“You'll die being back in this old mundane place,” said Justine.
“No, not at all. Oh, it seems a bit hot and bright after those northern countries, but I'm going to finish my degree at Sydney University. I'll soon get used to it, and everything that happened in the last four years will seem like a fairy-tale.”
The Bible was a mighty volume. The green plush had hardly any pile left at all; the brass edges were black and bent. They had not been polished for many years.
“Justine had it at the top of the linen cupboard. It belonged to some old great-great aunt or such. She used to be headmistress at Fort Street School, you know the old building up near the Observatory that the National Trust has now?”
“So she made it, the little stirrer!” crowed Abigail. She beamed at Robert, who gaped at her.
'She wasn't any little stirrer; she was a perfect old tartar. Mother remembered her quite well; she was in an old ladies' home or something. Mother was petrified with terror of her, she said.”
“Old Miss Bow!” Abigail laughed marvelling. “Who would have guessed it? I guess that's how that kids’ game sprang up . . . terror lest Miss Beatie Bow would rise from the grave and give them all what for.”
“You would have liked Granny Tallisker,” said Abigail. She sighed. “You won't care for mine, she's even worse than she used to be.”
She was silent, thinking of that old woman, Alice Tallisker, her infinite goodness and strength, and how she had said that the link between Abigail and the Talliskers and Bows was no stronger than the link between that family and Abigail. The theory she had had when wandering The Rocks four years before - that time was a great black vortex down which everything disappeared - no longer made sense to her. She saw now that it was a great river, always moving, always changing, but with the same water flowing between its banks from source to sea.