A River Called Time by Courttia Newland review – a vivid alternate reality

This speculative dystopia may strain for effect but is carried through by sheer energy and verve

It speaks to the hold TV still has over our culture that Courttia Newland, the author of seven novels and co-editor of The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, is best known today for the scripts he wrote for Steve McQueen’s BBC series Small Axe. Excellent scripts they are, too, and there is something televisual in the way Newland pitches his new novel: lots of visual description, busy with incident and plotty twists and turns. Where Small Axe grounds its stories in the lived experience of real people from the 1960s and 70s, A River Called Time reaches forward into a near-future alternate reality. If there are aspects of this worldbuilding that don’t entirely work, then maybe that reflects the broader influence on fiction of TV. Newland is certainly not the only contemporary writer trying to reproduce the immediacy and kinetic hustle of visual drama; but TV and novels tell stories in quite different ways, and sometimes that difference jars.

A River Called Time is set in Dinium, a version of London where most live among squalor, disease and violence, although a wealthy few occupy “the Ark”, an elite enclosure in the centre of the city. Our protagonist, Markriss Denny, grows up poor in the suburbs but has special powers: he can astrally project himself. He wins a place inside the Ark, but once there he finds his troubles are only just beginning. It turns out that his oldest friend, Ayizan, is actually his astral rival, and must be destroyed if the world is to be saved.

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