Monday, April 30, 2018

Swift, Paris Adrift (2018)

E.J. Swift, Paris Adrift. Solaris Books, 2018. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-1-78108-593-6. $10.99.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

The Communards. Cellist Rachel Clouatre. The Catacombs of Paris. Sacré-Coeur Basilica. The Moulin Vert. All are mentioned in E.J. Swift’s time travel story Paris Adrift in convincing detail. After reading the novel, I couldn’t resist doing a quick internet search to discern fact from fiction—which is a credit to Swift’s ability to build authentic-seeming descriptions of imaginary events. Paris Adrift starts out in 2318, focussing on a small group of individuals huddling in a fallout shelter as they witness the final stages of a catastrophic war. It’s a fate that they, like many they share the world with, would prefer to alter. Unlike the rest of the population, they have the means to do just that. The individuals we are introduced to at the book’s opening are no ordinary people, but rather, members of a select group that call themselves Janus—and they are capable of time travel.

But going back in time isn’t that easy. In Swift’s version of time travel, the mechanism of travel isn’t a machine, but rather a phenomenon known as an “anomaly.” There are only a few of these in existence, and they are geographically dispersed. What’s more, not just anyone can use one of the anomalies—they are attuned to specific individuals, known as “incumbents.” So, to alter the past, the Janus group must influence an incumbent from 2017 to discover a particular anomaly located in the basement of a bar in Paris called Millie’s, and furthermore, to have her tweak history in a way that will prevent a key event that sparked the war from happening. The catch: the incumbent can’t know that she’s altering history. She must simply be encouraged to use the anomaly and be subtly guided from there.

Two members of Janus are assigned to assist with the mission. One is Léon, whose own anomaly is located in the Catacombs of Paris. The other, known as the “Chronometrist", has time-travelled so often that she no longer has a physical form, but rather exists only as “a consciousness, one whose sanity is dubious at best” (15). Swift leverages the Chronometrist to provide opportunities for both dark humor and mild horror. Because the Chronometrist lacks a body, she must commandeer one temporarily when she wishes to communicate with flesh-and-blood people. At the outset of the novel, she animates an individual wounded by the bomb blasts, who “begins to shuffle towards the bunker. As he draws closer, Inga can see that half of his face is missing, the white of calcium exposed” (15). Throughout the novel, the quirky and unpredictable Chronometrist provides a counter-balance to Léon’s more empathetic character.

With Léon and the Chronometrist having jumped back to 2017 Paris, the stage is set for the story to play out. Enter our protagonist, a young woman named Hallie who has come to Paris to re-invent herself. At Léon’s suggestion, she applies for a job at Millie’s—and is hired. From there, it is a matter of time before she discovers, and begins travelling on, the anomaly. Hallie soon finds that time travel comes with a price. Rather than being a passive phenomenon, the anomaly has an active hunger to be used. Time travel becomes addictive, and those close to Hallie notice that her physical condition is deteriorating. Hallie’s friend Gabriela becomes so concerned that she tries, unsuccessfully, to destroy the anomaly in order to save Hallie.

While Hallie’s interventions in the past have the ultimate outcome desired by Janus, there are some side-effects that aren’t so desirable, and the final portion of the novel deals with trying to address these. Fixing the damage comes with a cost which, in the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t reveal here. Ultimately, Hallie needs to make peace with what has happened, while digesting what she has learned about herself in the course of her time in Paris. In the end, the resolutions to Hallie’s various life conundrums are plausible, while maintaining enough unpredictability to be satisfying for the reader.

The plot is believable within its own context. The notion of the anomaly requires suspension of disbelief, but the way it operates has a consistency within the novel. There is one mechanism that Swift uses for expediency: using the anomaly strengthens Hallie’s grasp of the French language. I found this to be a little contrived. On the other hand, Swift neatly handles one of the issues with time travel—obtaining money to use in the time you’ve gone back to. When Hallie travels back to 1875, she sells her hair, and this provides real-time cash to get her started. This struck me as a reasonable solution to the problem.

Swift’s ability to immerse the reader in the settings enhances the novel’s believability. Whether the description is of the daily grind of serving staff in a Paris drinking establishment in 2017, or past and future scenarios, the level of detail provides a sense of authenticity. The bulk of the novel is written in first person, portraying Hallie’s viewpoint, as in the example below (191):
I put on my coat and woollens and go out. The wind is vicious. By the end of the road I am chilled and shivering, but I keep walking. I follow the métro south: Saint Georges, Grand Boulevard, Opéra. At Pyramides I gaze into the brightly-lit window displays, their contents glamorous and costly. I look at jewellery and couture suits, at gold-tinted mirrors and handcrafted furniture. The trappings of beautiful lives for beautiful people. For the non-resident residents of Paris. I walk past the Louvre. The pyramid glows silver-blue, reflecting stray tourists and their cameras. I walk along the river, hands balled in my pockets. Seagulls fly or are thrown by the wind; bleak, pointed, swirling shapes, their cries thin and reedy. Over the wall, the surface of the Seine is turbulent.

The outset of the novel, which depicts a world-ending war, hints at a dark destiny for humanity. One possible future even after Hallie has changed the past depicts a totalitarian state in a portion of Paris, where forgetfulness tablets keep the citizenry in line. Swift also touches on human-kind’s self-destructive tendencies. One of the members of Janus, Inga, observes that “wars are rarely about what their perpetrators profess them to be about” (12). Elsewhere, Inga notes, “In all the centuries she visited, she never failed to be amazed by humanity’s capacity for destruction. One crazy person with their finger on the red button. That’s all it takes” (22). There is also reference to depletion of resources, and to the disappearance of natural phenomena like The Great Barrier Reef. But not all is gloom and doom. There is hope that things can change, and there are those who envision a better tomorrow, such as the Parti Moulin Vert and their leader, Aide Lefort, whose Manifesto lays out a blueprint for a better world.

The novel contains racial and sexual diversity. Aide Lefort is a lesbian, who is raising kids along with her partner. Hallie’s friend Gabriela hails from Colombia, and Millies’ bar staffers include an African-American, a Russian, an Australian, and a Swede as well as French folk. Léon notes at one point the lack of diversity he sees around him, and on another occasion states, “when you’re anything other than white, there’s not much point in going back further than the twenty-first century in this city” (313).

While ostensibly a story about time travel, Paris Adrift also deals with themes such as self-discovery, reconciliation (or not) with family, and self-sacrifice. Hallie’s life story and the events that drove her to leave England in favor of France are doled out through the book, creating suspense as we gradually come to better understand her family dynamic. Engaging and authentic description, a sense of mystery, and even a touch of romance—there’s a lot to like in this well-written, nuanced novel—even if it does leave the reader wondering whether history may have been altered over the course of their lifetime without them realizing it…

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