Review by Sanjida O’Connell
‘There is not one single time, there is a vast multitude of them,’ wrote Italian theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, whose work on quantum gravity describes how the flow of time is an illusion. This apt quote features in Courttia Newland’s latest novel, A River Called Time.
Set in an imaginary version of London, in a world where colonialism and slavery never existed, but where African mythology and spirituality dominate in a period after the ‘War of the Light’ has ravaged the land, a giant ‘Ark’ for the wealthy has been built in the heart of the city. Millions of people live within its walls who have never seen Day-Lite; the rest of the population struggles to survive in the polluted Poor Zones and only the fortunate, talented few are admitted once a year to work for the elite. The story follows Markriss Denny, who is chosen for the Ark. Markriss has had strange, out-of-body experiences both as a child and a young man; once within the confines of the Ark, he discovers that he has a rare gift – he is able to move between spiritual and physical states. In this ‘river of time’, he can travel between parallel lives in alternate worlds, but his purpose is to destroy a dark and evil spirit who is bent on annihilating the physical world.
Newland’s prescient novel has been published in a time of shameful realisations: firstly, of how few novels by authors of African or Asian ancestry are published (according to The Bookseller only 2.5% of books released in spring 2021 are by black British authors), and secondly, of how close we are to a dystopian future. A concomitant rise of Afro-futurism and black speculative fiction can be seen in Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, a dystopia in which Africa is the dominant superpower; Marlon James’ Dark Star trilogy; or the feature film, Black Panther, based on a Marvel comic about an African warrior king.
Newland brings us even closer to realisation of the future in the present: from Markriss’s job in the Ark producing ‘fake’ news to ITS (Interior Trauma Syndrome), something many of us have experienced during the months of lockdown, watching in horror as coronavirus exacerbated already deep divisions between rich and poor, as climate change continues to ravage the earth, and as giant conglomerates appear to control our data and our destinies.
Condensed down to its bare bones, Newland’s novel sounds like an epic blockbuster – a hero with an extraordinary gift time travels between parallel worlds fulfilling his destiny and seeking to destroy an arch-enemy, helped by ancestral visions and a team of close female allies; A River Called Time is not that. It is a novel of ideas, a re-imagining of the world order, an astute political commentary, and a quietly perceptive account of how, while millions of us are more connected by technology than ever, we lack true human bonds, leading to ‘loneliness, icicle-clear and precise’. This is a novel whose time has come.