Courttia Newland is a formidable writer. His vitae includes realist novels, plays, and — most recently — co-writing scripts for Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe film series. And his latest work, A River Called Time, is an extraordinary piece of speculative fiction.
The first page of the novel offers a timeline that is as striking for what it includes as for what it excludes. There are events that are familiar — the building of pyramids in Ancient Kemet, the birth of Jesus, the life of Confucius, the Aztec empire — but there are no European empires, there is no age of discovery nor conquest.
Newland has created a world without the history of colonialism and transatlantic slave trade; blackness and black people are everywhere in these pages, except for where we have learnt to see them in relation to our collective history. Modernity as we know it is replaced by figures and events that are unfamiliar.
The novel’s humble yet gifted young protagonist Markriss is on something of a spiritual journey. London is dominated by a massive Ark that was designed to offer salvation to all but is now protecting the chosen few.
Thanks to his academic diligence, Markriss makes his way from a working class outpost of the city into the Ark, but the more significant journey he takes is in learning to harness his gift for “astral projection”. Markriss can move between the current world and other versions of it — and while the setting is always London, the circumstances vary across these parallel cities. In each, Markriss is a witness to, and participant in, battles between good and evil — yet the means and ends that are taken to ensure that good prevails present their own moral conundrums.
Newland offers a brilliant remix of history, removing certain disasters while refusing to make a panacea of a world without white supremacy. African cosmologies dominate, race isn’t an operative concept, and yet there is a good deal of oppression and stratification in his version of London. And though the reader is cast into an unfamiliar realm, there is a familiar question facing Markriss, an upwardly mobile person from a disfavoured place: ought one cast one’s lot with the less fortunate and threaten one’s own uncertain position, or is it better to ascend as far as possible?
There are challenges that have contemporary relevance: borders, disability, policing, the encroachment of a digital surveillance state, and political manipulation. At certain moments, the reader is brought into our own time, but just as quickly the world we know slips away.
Subtle references to Beryl Gilroy’s landmark experimental memoir Black Teacher and James Baldwin books bought by Markriss on the South Bank suggest Newman’s attention to the power of history, and his understanding that it is often those who are not fully recognised by society who are most able to imagine a more just future.
This may be a work of speculative fiction but its critical lens is present and prescient.
A River Called Time, by Courttia Newland, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 464 pages
Imani Perry is professor of African-American studies at Princeton University
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