Historian Ian Mortimer is probably best known for his non-fiction ‘handbooks’, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. His latest book, The Outcasts of Time, is a work of fiction but based around a similar concept. It’s a book packed with interesting ideas and intriguing themes, but although I found it an unusual and thought-provoking read, I don’t think it was entirely successful as a novel. I’ll try to explain.
The story begins in December 1348, with England ravaged by the Black Death. Two brothers, John and William, are walking home to their small village near Exeter when they too fall victim to the plague. Wandering into a stone circle in the dark, a mysterious, disembodied voice speaks to them, offering them a choice: they can return home and spend their last six days of life in familiar surroundings, but with the risk of spreading the sickness to the people they love – or they can live each of those six days in a different century, each one ninety-nine years after the one before. If they choose the second option, although they will still die at the end of the six days, all traces of plague will be removed during that period. I’m sure you can guess what they decide to do!
Waking up in the year 1447, the brothers find that the world is a strange and unfamiliar place – and each new dawn after that brings even greater challenges. As the novel’s narrator, John acts as our guide, describing the changes he sees in the English countryside and in the streets of the towns and villages he once knew so well. Some things, it seems never change – for example, in almost every year the brothers visit, a war is taking place – but it’s the great advances in technology and the small details of daily life which surprise John the most. When he reaches that distant age of 1942, he is equally amazed by the ‘flying crosses’ he sees in the sky and by the mysteries of an indoor bathroom!
With his background in history, Ian Mortimer has obviously taken great care to recreate each period his characters visit as accurately as possible, down to the tiniest details, showing the changes in architecture, fashions, food and drink, place names, and even the fact that people are growing taller over the centuries. However, although some characters do remark on the brothers’ unusual way of speaking, I’m not convinced that they would have been able to make themselves understood at all, bearing in mind how much the English language has changed since the 14th century (the time of Geoffrey Chaucer). Also, while I did like the different and unusual approach to time travel in the novel, it often felt more like the framework for a series of history lessons rather than the compelling story I would have preferred.
Religion played an important part in medieval life, and John and William, as they move forward through time, have the chance to see how Christianity, the church and the ways in which people worship have evolved over the years. The religious element of the book is very strong – too strong for me at times – but led to some interesting discussions between the brothers and the other characters they meet. Themes of faith, morality and redemption are always at the heart of the novel, and in each of the periods he visits, John attempts to carry out good deeds in the hope of earning his place in heaven. And as well as seeing some of the worst evils human beings are capable of, he also witnesses some acts of kindness and humanity.
The Outcasts of Time is a fascinating novel but I found it difficult to become fully engaged with it. With only one chapter devoted to each time period, there wasn’t really time to become attached to any of the characters apart from John and his brother. It wasn’t completely satisfying as a story, then, but I would still recommend it to anyone who loves the idea of time travel as much as I do!
Thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.