A River Called Time

Courttia Newland

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Barry Didcock

As well as being a novelist, playwright and co-editor of The Penguin Book Of New Black Writing In Britain, Courttia Newland co-wrote two of the five films in Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe anthology, which delved deep into the history of the black British experience in the 1970s and 1980s. Anyone expecting more of the same in A River Called Time can forget it, however: sprawling, ambitious, often thought-provoking and just as often baffling, Newland’s latest novel is as hard to comprehend as it is to forget.

It’s set, initially at least, in an alternate London called Dinium on a world called Geb. In a handy timeline, Newland runs through the main historical events in this alternate universe starting with key dates in Egyptian history (Kemetism, the revival of the ancient Egyptian religion, features large). Christ’s life is shortened by 10 years, and by 213 AD the Roman emperors are favouring religions based on Kemetian Cosmology. In 1434, a century ahead of schedule, Henry VIII splits with the Roman Kemite Temple and forms an Anglican one; then in 1814 there’s a Flash War in which the original city of Dinium is obliterated.

The Dinium of May 2000, when the novel opens, consists of an Outer City and an Inner City which contains The Ark, an apparent sanctuary built in 1830 and to which Outer City residents can move if they qualify (think points-based immigration system with knobs on). Within The Ark there are Levels, rising to Level Four for the truly blessed and descending five miles down into the “Lowers”. Citizens sleep in pods which steer and control their dreams. All light is artificial.

Of course The Ark is a glittering lie. The Levels are split into Zones and in the lowest is the Poor Quarter, whose denizens undertake menial jobs and whose hardscrabble lives are plagued by crime and the authoritarian brutality of the E’lul Corporation.

Our protagonist is Markriss Denny, or Mark, or Mars or Riss, depending on which of several alternative version of his life we’re wading through at the time. We first meet him as a child living in the Outer City, mourning the death of his brother and hanging out with his friend, Nesta. He moves to The Ark and becomes a journalist, at least for the first 200 pages. In the second of the three acts, Markriss, Nesta and Markriss’s wife Chileshe are now members of The Outsiders, a group of political activists plotting to take on the E’lul Corporation.

Markriss is subject to visions. At times he leaves his body and moves into an astral plane where he communes with the spirit of Professor Harman Wallace, inventor of the pods. There is much talk of ethereal bodies and of chakras. At one point Markriss lies with “every hair rising to attention, the subtle atoms formerly at rest above his mortal body awakened, chakras spinning, primed to make a superfluity of connections”. So is act one a hallucinatory vision? Does act two take place in an alternate reality, with an alternate Markriss? Is Wallace trickster or guide?

Act three, the most coherent, takes us to modern-day London where Markriss is writing about his own day-to-day life, real-life events such as the 2019 General Election and also making notes for a long-standing project about The Ark. It ties things together up to a point, though it isn’t long before we’re flipped back into the world of Geb and a coda which return us to the life of Markriss (version one).

Class, race, different iterations of self, the power of the imagination, Afrofuturism, politics, spirituality, physics and philosophy – it’s all here in a high-concept novel blending sci-fi and speculative fiction with the self-critique of memoir, though unravelling it confidently on a single read-through of the 600-plus pages is quite an undertaking.