A River Called Time

Book: A River Called Time

Author: Courttia Newland

Publisher: Canongate

Publication date: January 2021

Price (Hardback):£16.99

You can purchase the book here

Reviewed by Reshma Ruia

A haunting, imaginative and speculative novel that moves between gritty contemporary reality and a dystopian vision of an alternate future interspersed with dream like sequences.

Newland merges various strands of African and European interaction to produce an alternative version of world history. While ostensibly set in a decrepit part of London, renamed as Dinium, the novel portrays an Orwellian society where the parameters of power that divide the rich from the poor keep widening, leading to violence, disease and an all pervading sense of unease and gloom.

Soldiers returning home to no housing or jobs, roaming the streets committing robberies, arson, burglaries, mugging and raping. The dark sky that never returned to its former glory, instead becoming a permanent, soup-like mist.’

The central protagonist of the novel is Markriss Denny, a sensitive boy brought up by a single mother, who is showered with love but acutely aware of the inequality around him. He excels academically and gains entrance into the Ark – a mysterious location in the centre of the city. The Ark was originally established to save humanity but has now become a place where access is only granted to the few and privileged. Markriss soon realises that ‘his adopted town was demon ugly,’ where ‘cars and trucks flipped upside down like bugs left to die on their backs.’ A mega-corporation called E-Lul uses subversive techniques to control the population, including a form of ‘crystal energy’ that makes them submissive and docile.

Markriss works as a journalist at Ark Light where his job is not to report facts but ‘to transcribe pre-written information into an exciting and believable format.’ He inhabits a cutthroat world where welfare does not exist and the danger of sliding into unemployment and gangland violence is a daily reality. The dark hinterland called Poor Quarter has its own argot, its own rituals and resentment. Those lucky enough to escape it are termed Ivory – traitors who have forgotten their roots, using their academic achievement to fund a better lifestyle for themselves: ‘born of the poor but made to believe they’re different.’

The prose is sharp and vivid and the novel is cinematic in its scene setting and dialogue. Newland skilfully portrays the dilemma of choosing sides, of whether Markriss should seek self-advancement at the expense of betraying his roots. Markriss, however, is no ordinary person; he is gifted with a kind of astral power that enables his spirit to leave his body, allowing him to witness and experience the world in all its flawed physical beauty. He observes the moral tussle between good and evil and discovers that his oldest friend is also his astral nemesis who is threatening this world.

This is a visual novel, ambitious in scope and vision. It imagines a future that bears the scars of inequality, oppression and violence. It was fascinating to see the reinterpretation of history where European, African and ancient Egyptian rituals, rights and ways of living co-mingle to produce a kind pan-religious vision and society that, whilst not bearing the scars of colonialism or slavery,  tussles with questions of love and loyalty.