By Sophie Squire
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The Ministry of Time: A fun, sci-fi rom-com set in past and future

A fiction book that highlights the very real crimes of the British Empire
Issue 2912
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The Ministry of Time interrogates the British Empire in a novel way

The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley is an interesting, funny and enjoyable book.

The story interrogates the legacy and continuing importance of the British Empire. Its premise is that the British government has discovered time travel and, unsurprisingly, is keeping it secret.

It has already extracted several people from the past, who were about to die, and brought them into the 21st century.

Tasked with helping our rulers navigate the future are a team of “bridges”—of which our narrator is one.

The government assign her commander Graham Gore, a man who once existed but who died during Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic in the 1840s. Gore is everything you might expect a Victorian man and naval commander to be—but then also he’s not.

Now in the 21st century, he has to get used to electricity, is blown away by Spotify, doesn’t like Eastenders and is sad to hear about the fall of the British Empire.

That last part could have been where I lost sympathy for the Gore character. But Bradley is smart in how she writes him.

She depicts him as both a product of the times in which he lived, but also with the capacity to change his outdated ideas.

The book’s narrator, who remains nameless throughout, on the other hand, seems slightly more rigid. She’s a half-Cambodian civil servant eager for promotion and so takes the top secret job.

It’s her greatest wish to do “field work”—that is being a spy—and she thinks the new job could be a route to this.

It’s interesting how the narrator so sanitises the concept of espionage and historical intervention that you barely recognise it for what it is. When her sister calls her a traitor for working for the British state, she’s probably right.

Throughout the book it’s made clear that while the British Empire is not what it was in Gore’s time, it still seeks to influence the rest of the world.

Gore argues at one point that the narrator works as a translator, negotiating between the government and foreign powers as a way of protecting British interests.

As the narrator schools him about using less offensive language, it hits you that she is also a servant of imperialism. It’s just an imperialism with a slightly nicer face.

She talks to Gore throughout about how the government is trying to get to net zero, how it’s an “equal opportunity employer” and even how systemic racism works.

But her words seem meaningless when you discover that behind the scenes, the state is engaging in every dirty method, including murder, to give it the edge.

The book reminds us that while reforms and protection for women or black people are always welcome, the institutions of the state use progressive-sounding policies to hide their crimes.

Of course, The Ministry of Time isn’t just about empire.

It deals with the war on refugees, climate change, the mass murder in Cambodia, the Auschwitz death camp and more.

It’s also about two people trying to bridge the gap between very different worlds. This friction is what makes the book lighter than some of the heavy themes it deals with.

It’s not a spoiler to say it, but on the last page, Bradley writes, “Forgiveness and hope are miracles.

“They let you change your life. They are time travel.”

And this element of hope and making the “right” decisions spans throughout the book. Ultimately both characters are confronted with a choice.

Do they break from being servants of empire, or do they stay and serve it?

You’ll have to read The Ministry of Time to find out which of then they decide to do.

  • The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley is published by Sceptre, £16.99

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