We’ll never know exactly what happened, but the hoary remains are terrifying enough.

In 1845, more than 120 men under the command of Sir John Franklin set out on two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage. They reached the Canadian Arctic, but then their vessels got caught in crushing ice for almost two years. Weakened by scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning, the survivors began walking back to the mainland, hundreds of miles away. They froze, starved, raved. Marks on a few scattered bones suggest some resorted to cannibalism. In the blinding white at the end of the world, all were lost.

Until now.

A secret program developed by the British government has managed to extract one of the missing officers, 1st Lt. Graham Gore, and return him to life in the modern age.

Some of what you’ve just read is historical fact, some is archaeological speculation, and a bit is wacky fantasy. I won’t tell you which is which, but I promise all those elements are blended deliciously in Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel, “The Ministry of Time.” From a little DNA scraped off the footnotes of polar exploration, she’s re-engineered a courageous, irresistible man who vanished almost 200 years ago.

You’re skeptical; I don’t blame you. So far as we know, time travel is more written about than embarked upon. And too many of those stories get tangled up in causal loops, timeline dilemmas and grandfather paradoxes. In fact, if I could travel back in time, one of the things I’d do, after strangling baby Hitler and buying Apple stock, would be to tell younger me not to waste time reading so many novels about time travel.

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But Bradley has got me rethinking that prejudice. Her utterly winning book is a result of violating not so much the laws of physics as the boundaries of genre. Imagine if “The Time Traveler’s Wife” had an affair with “A Gentleman in Moscow.” No wonder the manuscript for “The Ministry of Time” sold in dozens of markets around the world faster than the speed of light.

The story is narrated by an unnamed woman who gets a lucrative job in a top-secret government agency dealing with high-value refugees. “I didn’t know from whence they were fleeing,” she notes. “I’d assumed politically important defectors from Russia or China.”

But the question is not whence, but when. The newly established Ministry has figured out how to expatriate people from the past. To avoid causing temporal chaos in the future, the first batch of time travelers are people who were just about to die, doomed folks plucked from “historical war zones, natural disasters and epidemics.” As you might imagine, these expats arrive in the present day wildly discombobulated. Some don’t survive the journey, and those who do have a hard road ahead. So much has changed in the present day that acclimation isn’t easy. The antique refugees need careful instruction about how to dress, speak and behave in modern London.

Only after the narrator has passed through multiple interviews and accepted the job does she learn that she’ll be working as one of these guides, or “bridges,” as they’re called. She’s been assigned to help Cmdr. Graham Gore, an officer snatched from the Franklin expedition just before the rest of his crew succumbed to the horror.

“If you have any questions,” she tells him, “please feel free to ask. I appreciate that this is a lot to take in.”

“I am delighted to discover,” he says, “that, even in the future, the English have not lost the art of ironic understatement.”

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Over the next few months, we watch Gore “fill out with attributes like a daguerreotype developing.” Initially, much of the comedy here stems from his stiff-upper-lip astonishment at the world’s technological innovations. In utter wonderment, he flushes the toilet 15 times. He stares at airplanes not quite believing. He completely rejects the proposition that the world is full of microscopic germs.

“I won’t be participating,” he announces.

“You don’t have a choice,” his bridge tells him.

“I will write a strongly worded letter of complaint.”

You’d need a nuclear-powered flux capacitor to generate more charisma than Gore. “He was, above all things, a charming man,” Bradley writes. “In every century, they make themselves at home.” His banter with the narrator crackles off the page. Language and all its slippery evolutions are a source of endless amusement to them both. (The folks currently adapting Bradley’s novel for the BBC should be banished to the Middle Ages if they dare to meddle with even a word of this dialogue.)

When the narrator refers to a “foxy” extant photo that Gore had taken before the Franklin expedition, he says, “I assume, by ‘foxy,’ you are referring to the size of my snout in that portrait.”

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“‘Foxy’ in this context means – eh – alluring.”

“Can you swim?” he asks.

“What?”

“If I push you in the river, will it be murder?”

The handsome, 37-year-old officer is shocked, in his own ironic way, to hear that he and his bridge have been assigned to live together: a man and an unmarried woman! Even sitting with her in a pub, behaving with strict Victorian decorum, he finds “very daring and mischievous and kept smiling … as if we were getting away with a visionary practical joke.” He’s equally amused and scandalized by the casual way people discuss the most intimate matters – “The dreadful secularism of this age”! That revolting phrase “having sex”!

Even if you can’t travel ahead in time, you probably know what’s coming – or think you do.

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So, basically, “Outlander” with modern plumbing? Not exactly.

What feels initially like a time-traveling romance soon turns on curious questions about the possibility of moral progress. From the narrator’s enlightened position, how easy it is to regard Gore’s 19th-century attitudes about race with a mixture of pity and condescension. But when Gore runs across a description of the Holocaust, nothing Steven Pinker might argue in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” can rationalize the arc of history.

Gradually, as the novel’s carbonated humor fizzes away, sharper elements protrude. Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Time is something more sinister than a benevolent government department dedicated to resettling time-traveling refugees. And aside from those spy thriller elements, the novel also digs deep into what it means to be out of time and out of place.

Grieving the loss of all his comrades, adrift on “the ocean of sadness he had dammed and kept damming,” Gore struggles to imagine a role for himself in a post-colonial world. The narrator, meanwhile, reflects on the displacement endured by her mother, who barely escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In a sense, both the narrator and Gore must pretend to live at peace in a world that is out of sequence with their pasts. The narrator feels her Cambodian heritage always hovering around in the ways others regard her – from racist slurs to pitying allusions to the killing fields.

Admittedly, Bradley is not a tidy writer. This plot eventually starts to shake like a Radio Flyer wagon traveling at DeLorean speeds. But by then nothing matters but the fate of this asynchronous couple brought together across cultures and eras.

Can a 21st-century British-Cambodian woman really find love with a 19th-century officer of the British navy?

Readers, I envy you: There’s a smart, witty novel in your future.


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