“The past is a foreign country,” L.P. Hartley famously wrote. “They do things differently there.” In “The River of No Return,” Bee Ridgway’s wonderful first novel, the past is also a battleground where opponents in an eons-old conflict meet across time, as well as a trysting place for lovers separated by the centuries.
When we first encounter the book’s protagonist, Nick Davenant, he’s a 21st-century gentleman farmer who supports an artisanal cheesemaking operation in Vermont. His tastes are slightly arcane for a contemporary man of means: “Nick had no favorite childhood commercials, and he craved boiled mutton, beef jelly, blancmange, and bits of pig, pickled.” When a mysterious envelope arrives with the L.L. Bean catalogue in the morning mail, it proves to be a summons to an earlier life — a much earlier one.
Nick is, in fact, Lord Nicholas, the Marquess of Falcott, who served in Wellington’s army and died at the Battle of Salamanca on July 22, 1812. Only, Nick did not die. At the instant a French dragoon thrusts his saber into Falcott’s chest, the marquess unknowingly jumps through time, to 2003 London. There he finds himself under the care of the Guild, a shadowy organization whose members consist of involuntary time travelers. All have been catapulted from their own era to the future at the moment of death.
The Guild acts as a sort of witness-protection program for these temporal wayfarers, who have jumped from myriad years and places. At an extravagant compound in the Andes, they’re taught how to survive in the 21st century, then given an annual allowance of 2 million pounds and the opportunity to either work for the Guild or resettle anywhere except their home country. The only rules:
There is No Return.
There is No Return.
Tell No One.
Uphold the Rules.
Yet the letter Nick receives in Vermont orders him to report to Guild headquarters in London, where he learns that it is possible to bend not just the Guild’s rules, but time itself. Nick is to be trained and sent back to his former life, where he’ll act as a spy in an intrigue that spans hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
Ridgway spins an intricate narrative in elegant prose that combines the best of various genres — spy thriller, historical romance, science fiction, fantasy. Throughout, her juxtaposition of past and present is dazzling and often amusing. The Guild’s bureaucratic lingua franca is medieval Finnish, their Andean compound designed by Louis Kahn.
Back at Falcott House, Nick finds himself drawn into the Guild’s clandestine struggle, even as he falls for Julia, a charming young woman in the neighboring estate who also happens to be able to stop time. Their blossoming love allows Ridgway the opportunity to ring some delightful changes on a classic Jane Austen-style romance, while getting in a clever feminist subplot.
While the ending is occasionally confusing and slightly rushed, that seems fitting for a book that slackens its breakneck pace only for some sex scenes (unusually well-done), a foray into the Houses of Parliament, and a salient discussion of John Donne’s poetry. “The River of No Return” has the feel of an instant classic, along the lines of Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.” Readers will wish they could stop time to savor every page.
Hand’s most recent book is “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
By Bee Ridgway
Dutton. 452 pp. $27.95