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The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley review – time-travel romance is a sparkling delight

The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley review – time-travel romance is a sparkling delight

Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel is a clever, funny yarn that breathes fresh air into time-travel novels, postcolonial narratives and romance stories alike. One day in the near future, a Whitehall civil servant is informed by a colleague: “We have time travel,” she says, like someone describing the coffee machine.”

Then we’re off. It turns out that forced migration and dislocation are experienced not just across geography but time itself, with doomed figures from the past pulled out of wars, natural disasters and failed journeys to survive in the 21st century and adapt to feminism and music streaming. They are subjected patronisingly to the cliched language of flight, exile, refuge, homeland and belonging – with an extra, temporal dimension – as they acclimatise, some better than others. As one “expat” woman says: “I have engaged ‘Tinder’ on my ‘phone’… I have been so wise passing long. It is but a new medium.”

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The civil servant narrator looks Caucasian but has Cambodian heritage and is keenly aware of south-east Asia’s history of being colonised, occupied and exploited. In true romcom style, she meets her opposite number when she is assigned to look after a real-life figure, Cmdr Graham Gore, who died on an Arctic expedition in the late 1840s. A nice man, he nonetheless carries with him the historic entitlement, racism, imperial arrogance and misogyny of his sex, race, era and class. As Bradley writes: “The empire regarded the world the way my dad regards the elastic bands that the postman drops on his round: This is handy, it’s just lying here, now it’s mine.”

They have to flatshare together – of course! – while he eases into London life. Can the Victorian white male settler and the Brexit-era postcolonial career woman find their happy ever after? Does generational trauma carry across the centuries and are we ever free from past sins and sufferings? Can mere love transcend history, time and trauma? And when it comes to underlying attitudes to those who are considered foreign, different or other, how different is the 21st century from the 19th?

This book is a sparkling delight. One quibble is the inclusion, in the present tense and old-timey font, of grim, boring scenes set during Gore’s failed mission – “There isn’t enough coal to heat the ships, nor enough candles to light the Arctic winter” kind of thing. Skip these. Otherwise, The Ministry of Time tackles huge themes while folding in romance, mystery and adventure with the lightest touch.

Source: theguardian.com