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The Ministry of Time

A Novel

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About The Book

“If youre a fan of Outlander, spy novels, time travel books, or just really innovative and fun storytelling, The Ministry of Time is definitely for you.” —Town & Country, 45 Must-Read Books of Spring 2024

Part time travel romance, part spy thriller and 100% “multi-faceted joyride” (Harper’s Bazaar, UK): Welcome to The Ministry of Time, the exhilaratingly original debut novel by Kaliane Bradley.

In the near future, a civil servant is offered the salary of her dreams and is, shortly afterward, told what project she’ll be working on. A recently established government ministry is gathering “expats” from across history to establish whether time travel is feasible—for the body, but also for the fabric of space-time.

She is tasked with working as a “bridge”: living with, assisting, and monitoring the expat known as “1847” or Commander Graham Gore. As far as history is concerned, Commander Gore died on Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to the Arctic, so he’s a little disoriented to be living with an unmarried woman who regularly shows her calves, surrounded by outlandish concepts such as “washing machines,” “Spotify,” and “the collapse of the British Empire.” But with an appetite for discovery, a seven-a-day cigarette habit, and the support of a charming and chaotic cast of fellow expats, he soon adjusts.

Over the next year, what the bridge initially thought would be, at best, a horrifically uncomfortable roommate dynamic, evolves into something much deeper. By the time the true shape of the Ministry’s project comes to light, the bridge has fallen haphazardly, fervently in love, with consequences she never could have imagined. Forced to confront the choices that brought them together, the bridge must finally reckon with how—and whether she believes—what she does next can change the future.

An exquisitely original and feverishly fun fusion of genres and ideas, The Ministry of Time asks: What does it mean to defy history, when history is living in your house? Kaliane Bradley’s answer is a blazing, unforgettable testament to what we owe each other in a changing world.

Reading Group Guide

The Ministry of Time

Kaliane Bradley

Reader Club Guide

Introduction

In near-future Britain, a narrator known as “the bridge” takes a government job that she knows little about, save that it pays well, only to find herself at the heart of a top-secret project. Hired by a newly founded ministry devoted to experimenting with time-travel, she is assigned to be a “bridge,” a monitor and guide, for Commander Graham Gore, one of five “expats” who have been pulled from the past to the present. Gore, a nineteenth-century naval officer plucked from the throes of the doomed Franklin Expedition, lives with the bridge in London and participates with the other expats in exercises that are intended to acclimate them to the present, while being monitored for signs of physical, mental, or dimensional deterioration. But as the bridge grows closer to Gore, it gradually becomes clear that all is not what it seems, and the government can’t (and won’t) be willing to protect everyone.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Toward the beginning of the book, the bridge declares, “Set your narrative as canon and in a tiny way you have pried your death out of time, as long as the narrative is recalled by someone else.” With this in mind, consider the power and also the danger of narrative. Do you believe narrative is used as a weapon at all in this story?

2. At the beginning of the book, Adela tells the bridge that the Ministry prefers to refer to the time-travelers as “expats” rather than “refugees.” This is set up in contrast with the experience of the bridge’s mother, who was automatically labeled a refugee after leaving Cambodia. What do you think the author is trying to communicate by using the vocabulary of immigration in the context of time-travel? How do the experiences of the expats and the bridge’s mother compare, and why might the Ministry be invested in categorizing them differently?

3. In Chapter 5, the bridge, in conversation with Quentin, refers to herself, rather than Graham and his fellow expats, as “the pioneer” and “the experiment.” What do you think she means by this, and how does it reflect the way her understanding of the Ministry and its work may be changing?

4. Consider the parallels between the Victorian-era norms Graham espouses and those of the bridge’s near-future era (almost identical to our own). Did any of the similarities or differences surprise you?

5. Gore is fascinated by Spotify and loves a hot bath, but rejects television and other modern conveniences. What surprised you most about his encounters with technology? Which elements of modern life would you expect to be most appealing and most off-putting to someone from the Victorian era?

6. Throughout the book, the bridge questions the morality of her intentions and motivations, particularly when it comes to Graham. Imagine you are friends with the bridge and she’s asked for your advice on how to most ethically handle her work with Graham and the Ministry. What would you say?

7. Interspersed between regular chapters are short passages set during the Franklin Expedition. How do these passages, the only part of the book not from the perspective of the bridge, alter the way you consider Graham’s character and experience?

8. While there are many sources of tension in this story, there also is a wealth of comic relief, from the bridge’s chicken bag to Margaret’s vocabulary (insults, in particular), to the various ways the expats respond to phenomena of the future (washing machines, Spotify, germs). How did the author’s sense of humor influence how you perceived the characters and their situation?

9. Toward the end of the book, we discover that when Graham first met the bridge, he mistook her for the Inuit woman whose husband he had accidentally killed in the Arctic. What do you think the author is trying to do by making this connection between the two women?

10. Having finished the book, do you feel you can identify, with confidence, any characters as explicit heroes or villains?

11. After you finish the book, reconsider the first chapter of The Ministry of Time. Do you understand the characters and plot differently the second time around?

12. How do you interpret the ending of the novel, and what does the future hold for the characters?

13. Throughout the novel, our character is known only as “the bridge.” Why do you think the author made that choice?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male as a group and then discuss how the two books exist in conversation with one another.

2. Make a list of three events in time that you wish you could change in order to preserve the future. Why you choose these three moments? How would you go about changing them, and what dangers do you think you would face (or possibly bring about) in the process?

3. Write a letter no longer than three hundred words for someone to discover a hundred and fifty years in the future. Discuss why, in such a brief note, you chose to include the details that you did.

A Conversation with Kaliane Bradley

At the beginning of the book, you present time-travel as a relatively inexplicable phenomenon, saying that “the moment you start to think about the physics of it, you are in a crock of shit.” Why did you feel it necessary to introduce this concept, so central to the plot of the book, in such a direct and even comic manner?

Time-travel is such a weighted trope. When you write about time-travel, you’re not just writing about time-time travel; you’re writing your own outline for the shape of the universe. Do you subscribe to Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history, or does history come from below, from the people? Is time a series of linear events, expanding into unfixed futures; or is “time” complete and whole, regardless of the human perception? Does time-travel always have to draw on our (rich and varied) hard sci-fi tradition, especially if the author has barely a gnat’s grasp on quantum physics?

Well, what I wanted to do was write about this one sexy polar explorer. So I shut all those questions down ASAP.

I’m joking. The book is told from the point of view of a woman for whom these questions are so many ontological fart noises; it would have rung false for her to try and explain the fictional physics. She perceives history as a human subject, so she flags early on that what she’s telling is not a conceptual story, but a human one.

You and your unnamed narrator share an ethnicity—mixed white British and Cambodian. Were you ever concerned that she might be read as an author proxy?

All the time. This is a problem shared by anyone with a marginalized identity who is writing first person narration.

In the first versions of the book, the bridge wasn’t British-Cambodian. She wasn’t anything, really. She was a cipher. I knew I wanted her to be mixed-race and white-passing, but I dithered over making her British-Indian or British-Burmese—from a country colonized by the UK rather than France, which I thought would make more sense in a story about Britain’s imperial legacy. But it was just so weird and disingenuous for me to do that. I had a specific set of references and a specific experience of being white-passing that I could draw on. Of course I was worried that I’d be accused of writing a self-hating self-[insert here], but if I worried about the judgement of strangers then I’d never write anything.

I ended up taking this bridge out of another book I was drafting, which was about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian diaspora in the UK, because I felt the character in that book shared a number of concerns I developed in this bridge. I hope she reads as someone that anyone—not just an author who shares her ethnicity—could become, including her ability to change her mind.

How did your own relationship with the characters develop as you wrote this book?

One of the challenges I faced when I was writing was that I had the bridge’s perspective over my head, cutting off my sightline like a medieval torture device. The bridge is attracted to Graham and Maggie (though she attempts to suppress it), so I got to flood the page with observations about them; but (for example) she consigns Adela to the scary boss stereotype, which means that this complex, compromised, deeply lonely woman walks around the novel in a ridiculous eye patch, saying camply sinister stuff, as if she’s in a totally different genre to everyone else. It would have rung false for the bridge to be interested in and empathetically observant of everyone, to interact with everyone with the profundity with which she interacts with Graham, but I missed the characters whose edges were cut off because of the narrowness of her vision. Crucially, however, the bridge recognizes this too, by the end.

I found this necessary narrowness the most difficult with Arthur. I missed him too much. In the end I solved this by writing a long short story from Arthur’s point of view, about his holiday in Scotland with Graham. I felt a bit better after that.

The issue of “hereness” and “thereness” is a recurring one that is first presented when Anne Spencer is being rejected by the twenty-first century. How did you develop the concept of “hereness” and “thereness?”

Many years before I knew about Commander Gore, I read an extraordinary book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow by poet and philosopher Denise Riley. It was written after the death of Riley’s son, though it isn’t about the death of her son qua death. Instead, it’s a wrenchingly lucid and considered essay about the temporal and mental experience of grief. Riley describes the sense of being pulled out of time by her grief—time is arrested—and the difficulty of writing when writing must anticipate a future, must even anticipate the end of a sentence; and she simply can’t, living always in the single frozen space of grief. Time Lived Without Its Flow had a lasting effect on me, because it meticulously unpetalled a sense I’d always had a flowery, vague feel about, viz, our internal time (where memory, anticipation, and sensation overlap to form personal experience) was hooked by habit onto linear time, and major emotional disruption can uncouple us. We are there, we aren’t here.

I also thought about the act of storytelling, specifically the family stories I’ve inherited about pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. That version of Cambodia exists for my family as another country—no longer physically accessible but nevertheless vividly present. We’re always telling stories about that place, over there. It has its own colors and textures. It even has its own cuisine, as my mother insists that no one cooks Cambodian food correctly “anymore.” So even though it isn’t “here,” my mother’s Cambodian is always just “there.”

Could you share a little bit about your choice to incorporate Rogue Male into this story?

I read Rogue Male many years ago when I was going through an unsettled time. I had the same feeling about the unnamed narrator of the book as I did ten years later, reading Graham Gore’s Wikipedia page during the UK lockdown: Wow, this person seems very capable and calm, I bet they’d handle this situation well. But, of course, at the end of Rogue Male, the narrator reveals a surprising, emotional, unrational facet of himself and completely recasts his motivations, unsettling his whole narration—just as Gore does. Rogue Male is a thriller that turns out to be a love story, and that inspired me when I was writing The Ministry of Time.

There is also a lovely cat in Rogue Male, who likes bully beef. The narrator is very fond of this little cat. You see where I’m going with this.

While this book tackles many serious issues, including climate change and imperialism, it is outrageously funny. How did you manage to balance humor and criticism?

The real question is, how do I stop doing this. A lot of the earliest edits made to The Ministry of Time, by my agent Chris Wellbelove and his assistant Emily Fish, were taking out crap jokes that were only funny to me. I’m locked in a time-loop of wretched chuckles. Help!

On a more serious note, levity and playfulness are examples of tools you can give a reader for tackling difficult subjects, or even unfamiliar ones they feel awkward about approaching. As Terry Pratchett has pointed out, funny is not the opposite of serious; the opposite of funny is not funny and the opposite of serious is not serious. There are many tools you might use—I think anger is a powerful architect of text—but in my case my preferred tool is humor. Nothing is funny unless it touches the quick in some way—laughter being an instinctive, primal gut reaction—so when we’re talking about the things that make us laugh, we are often talking about the things we hold as immediate and personal.

Why did you choose to include passages set during the Franklin Expedition, rather than simply letting the bridge narrate the entire story?

The first version of The Ministry of Time was written for friends who were familiar with the Franklin Expedition (although most of them were not as familiar as I became with Graham Gore). As a result, there was a subtext—about British colonialism, about the incursion on Inuit homelands, about the emotional life of the expedition itself—that they brought with their reading. In short, they didn’t need the historical sections to know where Graham was coming from.

Around rewrite two or three, my friend Anne read the novel. Anne was not at all familiar with the Franklin Expedition, which meant that the context around Graham was missing and not all of his motives were legible. It was important to me that these were legible, partly because I think the Franklin Expedition is fascinating, but also because The Ministry of Time is also a book about trauma and its aftermath. Traumatized people don’t always react to situations that recall their trauma in logical ways, and they are sometimes trying to tell themselves a story (in Graham’s case, about personal redemption) about how things should or might go. I developed the Franklin Expedition sections bearing this in mind; even if his personal journey is misunderstood by the bridge, I wanted it to be there for the reader.

There’s no evidence that the historical figure Graham Gore killed anyone in Nunavut, by the way! That is purely fictional. Sorry Graham.

What inspired the chicken bag, and do you have a chicken bag yourself?

I really like chickens. I share Albert Uderzo’s opinion that chickens are intrinsically funny. I once saw the exact chicken bag described by the bridge on Etsy and I’ve never been able to stop thinking about it. It had such a winsome little felt face.

About The Author

Photograph by Robin Christian

Kaliane Bradley is a British-Cambodian writer and editor based in London. Her short fiction has appeared in Somesuch Stories, The Willowherb Review, Electric Literature, Catapult, and Extra Teeth, among others. She was the winner of the 2022 Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize and the 2022 V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize.

Why We Love It

“I never could have dreamed up an epic time travel romp that is also an ingenious critique of colonialism, but now I know it’s all I’ve ever wanted! The Ministry of Time is the outrageously cinematic, high-concept, high/low mash-up of my dreams and I can’t wait for readers around the world to get in on the fun and fall in love with Commander Graham Gore and the bridge like I did. Kaliane Bradley has written a hot, action-packed love story for the ages that can be enjoyed on every level and feels like a cultural phenomenon waiting to happen.”

—Margo S., Executive Editor, on The Ministry of Time

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (May 7, 2024)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668045145

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Raves and Reviews

"An outrageously brilliant debut with a premise that just gets more and more original. The Ministry of Time pulls off the neatest trick of speculative fiction, first estranging us from our own era, and then facilitating our immigration back into the present; but it is also a love story, exploratory, sensitive, charged with possibility, and powered by desire, reminding us that history is synonymous with human beings, and that we all have the ability to change it. This is already the best new book I will have read next year." —Eleanor Catton, author of Birnam Wood

The Ministry of Time is as electric, charming, whimsical, and strange as its ripped-from-history cast. (Extremely.) I loved every second I spent wrapped up in Kaliane Bradley's stunning prose, the moments that made me laugh and those that made my heart ache. This is a book that surprises as much as it delights, and I'm already impatiently waiting for whatever Bradley concocts next." —Emily Henry, author of Happy Place

"Fantastically fun and unmistakably urgent, The Ministry of Time is an ecstatic celebration of fiction in all its vehement, ungovernable, mutinous glory." —Megha Majumdar, author of A Burning

"Holy smokes, this novel is an absolute cut above! Kaliane Bradley leaps into a storytelling league of her own. This book is deadly serious speculative fiction, but it is also one of the funniest books I've read in years. It's exciting, surprising, intellectually provocative, weird, radical, tender, and moving. I missed it when I was away from it. I will hurry to re-read it. Make room on your bookshelves for a new classic." —Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

"Hugely enjoyable: ingeniously constructed, beautifully written, and unexpectedly sexy. It is the rarest of creations: a boldly entertaining page-tuner that is also deeply, thoughtfully engaged with our past, present and future." —Joanna Quinn, author of The Whalebone Theatre

"Kaliane Bradley writes with the maximalist confidence of P. G. Wodehouse, but also with the page-turning pining of Sally Rooney. It's thought-provoking and horribly clever—but it also made me laugh out loud." —Alice Winn, author of In Memoriam

"I haven’t enjoyed a book this much for a very long time. It’s wonderful, joyful, intelligent and hilarious. I underlined as I read and felt a strong sadness at finishing because I could not read it again for the first time." —Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters

"A fantastic debut: conceptually brilliant, really funny, genuinely moving, written in the most exquisite language and with a wonderful articulation of the knotty complexities of a mixed-race heritage." —Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

"The Ministry of Time is a feast of a novel—singular, alarming and (above all) incredibly sexy. An astonishingly assured debut, offering weird and unexpected delights on every page. I will be running towards whatever Kaliane Bradley writes next." —Julia Armfield, author of Our Wives Under the Sea

"Sly and illusionless in its use of history, lovely in its sentences, warm—no, hotter than thatin its characterisation, devastating in its denouement. A weird, kind, clever, heartsick little time bomb of a book." —Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill

"What a stunning and remarkable wonder! What if time travel was run by a bureaucracy? . . . There's something here for everyone—world history, side-splitting humour, lusty tension, brilliant prose, and characters to root for desperately. . . The Ministry of Time is the most vibe-forward book I have ever read." —Vanessa Chan, author of The Storm We Made

The Ministry of Time encapsulates life's paradoxes as easily as it transcends genre. Readers may see echoes of Severance's disaffected second-generation office worker-turned-heroine, or the romantic time travel adventure of Outlander, but Kaliane Bradley has created something equally brilliant and entirely her own.” —Shelf Awareness

"A thrilling time-travelling romance about a real-life Victorian polar explorer who is brought from the past into 21st-century London as part of a government experiment. . . A weird, funny mash-up of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow." —The Times UK

"Told over space and time, Bradley’s debut is at once an outrageously fun comedy while also providing keen analyses on the nature of colonialism, power and bureaucracy. One not to miss." —Dazed

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