Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Ministry of Time

The Ministry of Time

by Kaliane Bradley

Simon & Schuster, $28.99 / £16.99

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

A richly-detailed historical past and a wholly hypothetical future don't often meet in the same story. Of course, there are those episodes of various Star Trek franchises where the pricipals go back into the "past," being careful to avoid trampling the butterflies of time-travel infamy, but eventually of course the holodeck is invented and saves them the trouble. Novels, our oldest technology of immersive reality, fulfill, in a sense, the same purpose, making our hearts beat faster at imaginary perils -- and pleasures.

Kaliane Bradley's The Ministry of Time is one such, and simply as an immersive, delightful "escape" from our troubled timeline, it shines. Bradley's adroit and fresh way of putting things seems capable of making almost anything -- even London weather -- newly vivid, as when she describes the Christmas season making the city look as though it were "painted by a lesser impressionist." But beyond the glittering language, beyond the slow-burning romance, beyond the tightly-plotted espionage-filled main plot, Bradley's novel is anything but an escape -- on the contrary, it holds our darkness up to ourselves like a spattered mirror, and insists that we not look away.

How to explain the last two centuries -- how to account for the horrors, and our collective ability to repress and forget them, even to "double-down" (as the phrase goes these days) on our worser selves -- to a person who arrives to them as a tabula rasa? Well, not really entirely rasa, as Graham Gore did lead a life, ensconced by the ideological reassurances of his age, but complete with war, slavery, and mortal peril. It's just that he's skipped ahead a few hundred pages, and yet arrives in a world where his "bridge" -- the novel's unnamed narrator -- has the dreadful responsibility of deciding what to tell him, and when.

In the midst of reading about this conundrum, I found myself the somewhat odd position of knowing almost too much about the "real" Graham Gore and his role in the pereptually "ill-fated" Franklin expedition. Not only that, but having read every known piece of fiction inspired by its demise (thirty-two at last count), I initially readied myself for some new take on the tale. Which there was, of course, but that was not the point, dear reader, not the point at all. If considered as a "Franklin fiction," The Ministry of Time moves further from its source than any of them, further into the essential problems of human existence -- and by doing so, becomes the one book that fully captures the expedition's spirit.

And it does so with a narrative capable of the lightest of touches, the gentlest of humors, happily free from the lugubrious self-seriousness which possesses most other Franklin fictions. For, as Terry Pratchett -- in a quote that Bradley is fond of, observed:

The problem is that we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. In fact, as GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious is not serious … humor has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering on the door. 

I can say with assurance that the Graham Gore we meet with in this book's pages is a fully realized individual, so alive, indeed, that it seems his breath might fog the glass. And his perplexity at the twenty-first century and its accoutrements is so genuinely described that it almost makes us a little embarrassed for ourselves. As the story progresses, the reader, too, is liable to a sort of disassociation, sometimes disconcerting but at othe moments quite delightful. I can see why many readers, on completing the book, begin it all over again, much as Commander Gore can't let go of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, the one volume in his new "present" which engages both the man he was -- and the man he will be.

And he's not even necessarily the most remarkable of the "expats" -- the Ministry's double-edged euphemism for those they've plucked from time -- my personal favorite was Margaret Kemble, picked up on the cusp of the Great Plague (and the Great Fire) of London, who dismisses Facebook as "soft oats and whey" but takes to online dating like a stroke of lightning. They, and the narrator, are caught up in two webs -- that of the Ministry and its politics, and that of the vagaries of modern life -- even before a third, the time-traveling espionage one -- gets a hold of them. I loved the novel's "middle parts," the calm before that storm, but its denouement is adroitly plotted, and despite all manner of role-switching revelations, there's a space at the end for hope.

And that's where the underlying seriousness of the story finds its perfect context. In Bradley's words:

 "Life is a series of slamming doors. We make irrevocable decisions every day. A twelve-second delay, a slip of the tongue, and suddenly your life is on a new road."

Which is as true for us today as it was for Graham Gore in 1847. We catch only glimpses of the lost Expedition, and that's as it should be -- because, for him, it happened in "real" time, and even traveling across time doesn't really change that.