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Book Review: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Book Review: The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Whether it’s a slip, a loop, a classic machine or a dreamy form of precognition, time travel can be a difficult theme to get right. Get it wrong and a story can be riddled with plot holes and contradictions. But when it’s written well, as Kaliane Bradley’s The Ministry of Time is, it can be a captivating way of exploring not only the relationship between space and time, but also the human condition and the questions of morality that are intrinsically linked with the concept of being able to change the future or past.

Bradley’s debut – indisputably one of this year’s literary darlings – uses the time machine trope to bring a disaffected civil servant and a Victorian polar explorer together in near future London. When our unnamed narrator is offered a lucrative job by a mysterious new government ministry, she doesn’t know exactly what she’s signing up for. Her role is to work as a ‘bridge’ to one of a handful of ‘expats’ gathered from across history to test the limits of time travel. Partnered with Commander Graham Gore, a naval officer who died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to the Arctic, the bridge’s job is to live with, assist and monitor her expat, nicknamed ‘1847’. They might be from entirely different eras but it doesn’t take long for the bridge to become unintentionally smitten with her charge.

Over the course of one long, sultry summer, Gore and his bridge go from awkward strangers to tentative friends to conflicted lovers. And as their relationship shifts, the true shape of the project that brought them together begins to emerge. The bridge is forced to choose between her loyalty to the mission and her feelings for a man who shouldn’t exist. But the closer they get to the ministry’s real agenda, the more they must confront their past choices and imagined futures. Not only for themselves but for humanity as a whole.

The time-travel project was the first time in history that any person had been brought out of their time and into the far future. In this sense, the predicament of the expats was unique. But the rhythms of loss and asylum, exodus and loneliness, roll like floods across human history.

The Ministry of Time is one of the most original novels to grace shelves in years. It sits in that sweet spot between sharp literary fiction and speculative sci-fi, with a contemporary romance thread that feels tender in an old-fashioned kind of way. There’s an ever-present vein of humour running through the story too, as Gore – a man entrenched in the 19th century – acclimatises to modern-day Britain. At first he’s disorientated. Simple things like the washing machine, computers and Spotify are a complete mystery to him. But he’s an adventurer, albeit one with a bad cigarette habit, and he quickly adjusts to the strange new world he’s presented with. He’s the very definition of ‘keep calm and carry on’, and it’s Gore’s composed, curious and mild-mannered attitude that endears him to both his bridge and the reader.

What’s most impressive about Bradley’s debut, aside from the seamless melding of genres, is the way it juggles the weighty themes of identity, colonialism, government corruption, genocide and climate change with quieter explorations of love and connection. The deliciously charged and slow burn relationship that unfurls between the bridge and Gore gives the story a sense of intimacy and hope that counterbalances the more unsettling dystopian themes that reveal themselves later in the novel. Perhaps more disconcerting is that they really don’t feel all that dystopian if you stop and look at what’s happening in the world around us.

Yet the lingering message of The Ministry of Time remains one full of optimism in the face of impending disaster. And that makes this a book that you’ll want to return to – for its subtle humour, for its unconventional heroes, and for its beautiful beating heart.


The Ministry of Time was published by Sceptre on 16 May 2024

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