Thursday, 28 January 2021

A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A River Called Time, Courttia Newland’s latest novel, is unlike anything he has written before. It may well be unlike anything you have read before – even if you are familiar with the genre of speculative fiction.

In his Afterword to this book, Newland writes that he set out to write, “a decolonised novel, freed of any adherence to the race-fixated, identity-based reality we live every day. I would mentally free myself from the White Gaze.”

To do so, he constructed a world – in fact, a series of parallel worlds – in which “the Transatlantic Slave Trade, colonisation and the genocide known as Maafa … hadn’t ever taken plate, one in which Europeans treaded Africa as the ancient Greeks once treated Kemit, coming not to pillage, rape and murder, but to learn.”

But these worlds are no Utopias. Most of the parallels contain a version of London (Dinium) in which a large area of the centre has been destroyed by a catastrophic event and replaced by a giant monolith in which millions of inhabitants live their lives without ever emerging from its hermetic space. Within that monolith, there are lives of privilege, lives of poverty and gruelling labour,  and pretty much everything in between.

As we move between the different world, the same cast of characters is reconfigured again and again, playing different roles and standing in different relationships to one another. We even briefly find ourselves in a world that seems indistinguishable from our own. Each one is fully realised, the differences between them sometimes minute and sometimes vast.

The book has been a long time coming. Newland describes how he struggled, first to find a way to write the book he knew he wanted to write, and then to find anyone who was willing to publish it. There were those who thought he should stick with the urban stories he was previously known for. But finally, the book found its publishing home, with Canongate Books.

It is a slippery book – one that refuses to give up easy explanations. Each section is enthralling in its own right - the connections between them elusive but intriguing. Yet the author offers no moral compass. There are no clear ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Like Markriss, the character we follow from world to world, we are left to work out for ourselves what constitutes the right choice.

Powerful, liberating and challenging, this book is an explosive new entry to the canon of speculative fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadowshaper by Daniel J Older, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Avoid If You Dislike: Books that stubbornly refuse to give up easy explanations..

Perfect Accompaniment:  Spaghetti Bolognaise (if you read the Afterword, you’ll know why!)

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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