A RIVER CALLED TIME by Courttia Newland (BOOK REVIEW)
“Within these walls, we take few things. Clothes, personal belongings, photos of loved ones whether family, friends or pets; precious books, maybe a volume like this; our favourite means of hearing music, digitised or analogue. Our arts, our sports, our trinkets. Our personal effects, verifications of self. Remember this: nothing is more important than what we carry upright each day when we rise from our pods to greet the world. Ourselves.”
Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time (2021) is an ambitious, confounding and thought-provoking book. Set in an alternate history in which colonialism and slavery never happened, the novel is an attempt to imagine a decolonised world. In Newland’s novel, European relations with Africa are built on respect and the desire to learn. In this world, African cosmology has become the dominant global religion, and African culture informs the day to day lives of the inhabitants of the city of Dinium, London in our world. But A River Called Time quickly becomes something even more complicated, as it embraces multiverse theory and astral projection to explore its ideas around social inequality, agency and identity. At the end of the book, I remain unsure if A River Called Time succeeds in all the myriad complex things it is trying to do, but I can’t help but admire Newland’s ambition, craftsmanship and the sheer scope of his worldbuilding.
Markriss Denny lives in Dinium, a city divided between the Ark, an enclosed habitat built as a refuge but occupied now by an elite, and the Outer City, the portion of Dinium outside the Ark that survived the destruction of the War of Light home to the city’s poor and dispossessed. A select few of the Outer City’s population will earn the right to enter the Ark if they can prove their excellence. Markriss becomes one of these, leaving his mother and schoolfriends behind forever for the safety of the Ark. However, life in the Ark is far from perfect – the Ark itself is bristling with inequality, split between the wealthy elites and the residents of the Poor Quarter, who are brutalised by the police force and vilified by the press. Markriss has had the ability to astral project his consciousness, and soon becomes embroiled with freedom fighters across multiple alternate universes, including our own, and a battle in the astral plane to combat a great evil.
The above summary should give you an idea of both the scope of the narrative and its dizzying complexity. One of the things that’s so confounding about the book is that Markriss can only remember the alternate versions of himself when he is in the astral plane. In effect, across the four different sections set in four alternate timelines, Markriss and the recurring cast of characters who join him in his various struggles, are almost different characters each time we encounter them. Markriss’s schoolfriend Nesta is sometimes demonic, sometimes heroic. Chileshe is sometimes Markriss’s wife, sometimes his work colleague. Keshni is sometimes Markriss’s distant crush, sometimes a close colleague. In the section set in our universe, Chileshe and Keshni are married. This is all part of the book’s meditation on self and identity, its exploration of what is the essential self that remains the same and what parts of us are determined by circumstance and upbringing. But it does mean that each time we meet the characters we have to sort out what we know of them from their previous iterations and what we are being told about their current selves, which can be tricky to follow.
Newland’s skills as a worldbuilder are on display throughout, and one can’t help but be impressed with how he is able to convey information with the minimum of infodump. The section set in our world is interesting in this regard, as it demonstrates just how much worldbuilding Newland is able to convey via overheard bits of conversation, place names, the technology people use, the headlines people glimpse in their day to day lives. He uses these same techniques to paint the alternate worlds of Dinium and the Ark across multiple different timelines in impressive detail. These aspects help make the various timelines of the book always feel fully realised and lived in.
The differences between our world and the other timelines in the book highlight the extent to which decolonising the imagination is a huge task. In the Afterword, Newland talks about how it was an ongoing project, realising that the names of African countries and how people identified themselves would be completely different. The novel is seeped in Kemetian cosmology, with Markriss’s ability to astral project, meditation and worship of various Egyptian deities an accepted part of the book’s world, to the extent that it mixes seamlessly with the novel’s alternate history science fictional aspects. A River Called Time comes to some bleak conclusions about humanity, another source of its challengingness. For all that in Markriss’s world slavery, colonialism and genocide have been avoided, the world is still rife with social inequality. The Ark is built to keep the residents of the Outer City out, but even once you have made it into the Ark you are likely to end up in the Poor Quarter, or working beneath the city with the Lowers who perform backbreaking manual labour to keep the extensive machinery of the Ark running so the elites can enjoy their privileged lifestyle. In the end, solving one form of inequality does not seem to lead to a more just world. It is this that makes A River Called Time such a disconcerting and provoking read. I know I shall be thinking about this book for a long time.