The River of No Return is a time travel novel, but it isn’t exactly science fiction or fantasy. It’s really a genre mash-up drawing from at least four different traditions – a time-travel adventure romance swashbuckling mystery with a hint of apocalypse around the edges. I wrote it to be big and fun and fast-paced. But with that said, the novel is built on a scaffolding of serious ideas, and I’ve put a lot of my scholarly self into the bricks and mortar of the novel. For example, the time travel in the novel is a method for exploring how history, and that strange sense of connection that we have between the distant past and the present, affects character.
My main man, Nick Davenant, jumps forward in time from a scene of violent conflict, just when he is about to be disemboweled on a Napoleonic battlefield. A soldier and an aristocrat in his own time, he suddenly finds himself without title or weapons in the 21st century, and he has to quickly change his understanding of himself in order to survive in our present. An organization called the Guild – a brotherhood of time travelers – meets him and helps him learn how to be a modern man. Everything, from sex and gender to food and travel, are different. And when he goes home again, to Britain of 1815, he finds his old emotions waiting for him, ready to overwhelm him. Love is lying in wait for him in his past, but so is mortal danger. He must figure out how to give himself, and protect himself, using old tools that his 21st century self has almost forgotten how to wield.
My time travelers use emotions to navigate the stream of time. Alice Gacoki, the Alderwoman of the Guild, the organization that controls time travel, describes it to Nick like this: “Normally your feelings are calibrated to keep you in the present, ticking over from moment to moment. But they also can propel you forward and pull you back. Don’t you see? We do it with feelings. That’s why we keep Guild members away from their homelands. Yearning, nostalgia, loss, loneliness, -- these are all superhighways back to the past. Your emotions can be overwhelming when you’re in a place that once was familiar to you. Without training, without proper understanding . . . well. It can be dangerous. If time is a river, it is a deep and a strong one. It is easy to drown, easy to get swept away.”
Nick does get swept away. His headlong journey down the river and the friends and enemies he makes along the way, combine to form the action of the novel.
So that’s my idea: emotions are my characters’ time machine, and the rules that govern character and emotion are also the rules that govern time. But how to make that work, sentence to sentence? How to make that idea sing? One of my biggest challenges lay in trying to communicate the strangeness of time and temporal shift to my readers at the level of the prose itself.
I teach 18th and 19th century American literature at Bryn Mawr College. Another way of describing my job is to say that I tempt young readers into time travel. I trip them, and I hope they fall headlong into a historical text, that they feel history as they read – that they use their emotions to connect with the emotions of another time. My notion of emotional time-travel in my novel grew out of my two decades’ experience of getting students to fall in love with a book that at first strikes them as terrifying, or boring, or as just plain impossible. I want my students to be possessed by something strange and other when they read such long-ago literature. I think that that experience of letting something so old rush through your heart should be both scary and wonderful. Picking up a book, letting the talismanic power of printed text enter you, realizing that what you are doing is channeling the passions of the dead, and finding that those passions can live again in your own heart. It isn’t time travel, exactly – but it is about time and it is about travel away from and back to our own moment.
You could say that the idea of time travel in my novel is an allegory of the experience of reading – specifically, the uncanny moment when you disappear into the experience of reading something written long before the birth of your great grandmother. That strange backward-falling sensation of losing yourself in a text that grew out of the feelings of a lost era.
The readers of my novel won’t actually meet me, won’t have me as their teacher. They won’t be discussing American literature with me and my students. But I wanted my readers to experience something along the lines of what I try to do in my classroom. I wanted the prose itself to hint at the instability of time, I wanted there to be a little tingle at the back of the head now and then, the echo of something ghostly from the past.
Throughout The River of No Return I buried dozens of fragments from other texts. I’ve threaded bits of poetry, song lyrics, sentences from other novels and short stories through my own prose, taken from medieval to contemporary sources. A few of them are actually quoted by my characters, who, like good 19th century ladies and gentlemen, are somewhat prone to spouting poetry. But for the most part these shreds are intended to be invisible. My hope is that they serve to make the reading experience ever so slightly uncanny. I hope that here and there in the midst of enjoying a fast-paced fun read, my readers have a tingling sense that there is another voice, another time, whispering beneath the surface of the novel.
About The River of No Return
The River of No Return
Dutton Adult (Penguin), April 23, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 464 pages
In Bee Ridgway’s wonderfully imaginative debut novel, a man and a woman travel through time in a quest to bring down a secret society that controls the past and, thus, the future.
“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life's advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.
In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance.
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