Nick Falcott, an English aristocrat fighting in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, is about to be run through by a French dragoon’s sword when he abruptly blinks out of existence and reappears in the year 2003. The orphaned Julia Percy, languishing in castle Dar under the guardianship of her loathsome cousin Eamon, discovers she is able to stop time and even reverse its course. The blending of science fiction and Regency romance in this pair of plotlines furnishes the template for Bee Ridgway’s insightful and agreeably convoluted time-travel novel, The River of No Return. We first encounter Nick in 21st-century Vermont, where he has been resettled in the tranquil occupation of a cheese maker by “the Guild,” a kind of underground concierge service for accidental time jumpers. When the Guild decides to send Nick back to 1815 to spy on the Ofan, a rival society of time travelers, his story and Julia’s converge. The two find themselves caught up in the competing schemes of these two groups, whose members have apparently been manipulating past and future in a centuries-long battle for transtemporal supremacy. Nick and Julia must learn to exploit their own time-traveling talents in order to disentangle themselves from this intrigue, as well as from Julia’s meddlesome cousin Eamon, and finally to square their love affair with the incompatible social mores of divergent centuries and cultures. I won’t reveal whether they succeed in thwarting Eamon or the crusading secret societies, but only mention that an even larger science-fictional mystery confronts them along the way: “the Pale,” an ominous barrier in future history that no time traveler is able to breach.
Ridgway’s admixture of genres—a mingling of fantasy, paranormal, postmodern metafiction, and quasi-filmic devices, along with science fiction and romance—is one source of suspense and pleasure in the novel. Another source is Julia’s and Nick’s continual difficulties distinguishing friends from enemies: With whom ought they to side, the Guild or the Ofan? Has Julia’s secretive time-traveling grandfather been safeguarding or manipulating her emerging talent? Can Nick confide in his battlefield comrade Jem Jemison, who witnessed his disappearance at Salamanca? Just what are the intentions of the shadowy figure Mr. Mibbs? Some of these puzzles are solved, a good many left open; their intricacy lends the novel a hint of an epic series, perhaps gesturing toward sequels.
Ridgway’s admixture of genres—a mingling of fantasy, paranormal, postmodern metafiction, and quasi-filmic devices, along with science fiction and romance—is one source of suspense and pleasure in the novel.
But the intellectual gratification in reading The River of No Return comes from the virtuosity with which Ridgway layers cultural and historical details both past and present. The prose is peppered with allusions—ranging from Shakespeare, John Donne, and Adrienne Rich to Neil Young, Tom Petty, and the Bee Gees—that amiably test the reader’s literary and pop-culture savvy. Ridgway is skilled at defamiliarizing everyday objects by inserting them into anachronistic perspectives, an opportunity afforded by both historical fiction and time travel. When Nick wakes in 2003, he observes the word “GAP” on his doctor’s orange T-shirt and wonders, “Was that some sort of code? Or was he branded, like a criminal?” When Julia’s grandfather hands her a Rubik’s Cube from the future, she supposes it to be a “Chinese box” puzzle with an especially fine “lacquer” finish; despite her success in matching the colors on its sides, “it never seemed to want to open.” Because Ridgway presents these items without identifying them by name or brand, the reader can join the time-traveling characters in deciphering their meaning.
This game exposes cultural capital itself to scrutiny. Julia inspects “a square of paper” that displays “a remarkably realistic painting, smooth as ice”; a friend of hers is baffled by “a short black leather jacket that seemed to fasten by means of a metal ribbon with serrated edges.” The concrete effects of two centuries of industrialization on commodities such as bedsheets, windowpanes, and beer are presented alongside less tangible but more essential differences in language, mores, and politics. Returning home to the 19th century, Nick must remind himself to say “Father Christmas” instead of “Santa Claus” and “bloody hell” instead of “holy shit,” but he must also contend with the suffocating class and gender conventions that defined his erstwhile status as a 19th-century English aristocrat and that now seem pointless and capricious from his 21st-century outlook. “For God’s sake,” Nick grumbles as he tries to arrange an unchaperoned rendezvous with Julia, “the nineteenth century! It was ridiculous.” Julia understands all the more the arbitrary nature of the gender protocols and etiquette that oppress her. Yet the 21st century, notwithstanding its liberties, can equally appear spiritless and tawdry from the perspective of the past, a reflection that is presumably a rudiment of the historical romance genre.
Ridgway achieves her most intriguing cultural and historical speculations when narratological, psychological, and historical conflicts overlap.
When Ridgway employs her historical settings to juxtapose 19th- and 21st-century attitudes toward violence, inequality, greed, and what might be termed historical provincialism—whether to observe their welcome obsolescence, their lamentable endurance, or their peculiar inevitability in narrative itself—The River of No Return is at its finest. Like the best authors of time-travel fiction in any genre, Ridgway achieves her most intriguing cultural and historical speculations when narratological, psychological, and historical conflicts overlap. A good example is Nick’s recurring memory of the horrifying siege and sack of Badajoz in 1812. Consistent with the fragmentary quality of Nick’s distressing recollection, Ridgway offers limited exposition of either the content or the import of the incidents behind the images—“Badajoz” enters the prose as discreetly as Ridgway’s casual but esoteric references to a “milk pumpkin” or a “gavotte.” For a modern reader, the name “Badajoz,” if it signifies anything at all, is just as likely to evoke a well-known massacre during the 1930s Spanish Civil War as it is the ghastly rampage by Wellington’s troops during the Napoleonic Wars that Nick recalls. Here a complex metacommentary on perpetual conflict and suffering, and perhaps on the appalling inevitability of historical or psychological repetition, is constructed somewhere in the near background of the story. Moreover, the evocative overlap between psychological ambivalence and narrative ambiguity enriches the novel’s distinctive explanation of time travel, which is accomplished not by machine but by powerful emotional ties to specific places or events. Ridgway’s finely wrought tale suggests that when we travel into history—whether we do it by studying culture, undergoing psychological therapy, or just reading genre fiction—we inevitably select moments of historical significance or trauma that, in the measure of their allure, reveal as much about our lives in the present as they do about the past.