Buying Time (E. M. Brown) – Book Review

Publisher: Solaris
Written by: E. M. Brown
Pages: 320
Price: £7.99

In January 2017, something very strange happens to screenwriter Ed Richie. He wakes up one morning to find that he has been shunted back in time nine months and is now inhabiting the body of his younger self… Worse is to come: the following day he jumps three years, to 2013, with all his memories of the intervening years intact. What is happening to him? Is he going mad? And where will his involuntary time-travel end? Meanwhile, in 2030, journalist Ella Croft is investigating the life of screenwriter and celebrated novelist Ed Richie, who mysteriously vanished in 2025. She interviews friends, acquaintances, and old lovers – and what she discovers will change not only Ed Richie’s life, but her own… Buying Time is a time-travel novel like no other. No man is rich enough to buy back his past – unless that man is Ed Richie…

Time travel is a classic sci-fi trope, but E M Brown’s latest novel, Buying Time, is an attempt at a new take on it, and overall it works. The tale is told from two alternating perspectives: that of television writer Ed Richie as he jumps involuntarily backwards from 2017, as well as  journalist Ella Shaw, spending her 2030 investigating Richie’s sudden disappearance five years prior.

In the very first chapter, Brown sets the tone, describing Richie’s everyday conversations with his best friend and fellow scriptwriter Digby Lincoln, and the separating fight with his latest lover Anna. The fight is grounded in reality, not a huge degree of high drama as shown in television quarrels, just two people realising they don’t care enough about each other to put up with their flaws. This introduction show Richie as a thoroughly unsympathetic character, passive-aggressive, baiting, and callously inconsiderate, yet swiftly adds depth to him, offering poignant moments of sincerity in his post-breakup drinking session, where he confesses he has no idea whether he is, in Digby’s words, “an unfeeling bloody bastard”. The scene’s strength lies in its grounded nature, a pair of jaded old writers moaning over too many pints about where things went wrong in their life, and feigning denial about the source of their emotional turbulence.

There’s a small but notable shift in tempo for the second chapter, as the story diverts to Ella Shaw and her investigation into Richie’s life and disappearance. Despite her clear nature as the second character, it is Shaw who drives the plot, as her probing discoveries uncover the mystery of what is happening to Richie, how, and why. Unfortunately, we gain little understanding of her motives until late in the story, and most of her actions and decisions expand upon Richie’s character than her own. We see that her curiosity is piqued, but until a genuine connection is revealed in the latter third of the novel, Shaw’s motivation feels lacking for the commitment she undertakes to her endeavour.

Buying Time continues to alternate between these characters, chapters about Richie in a new period further into his past, in between Shaw’s attempts to determine his fate. Shifting perspectives is by no means a new style for a story, but the degree of integration to create a stronger sense of one of the characters certainly feels fresh. In many ways, we see Richie’s personality evolve in reverse, not just as he shifts into younger versions of himself with yet more memory, but we see an insightful, confidence in his youth that is was lacking in the emotionally stunted version we are introduced to at the start. The sources of his withdrawal and regret become more apparent as we are introduced to defining moments in his history, and his desperate attempts to change their outcome with his knowledge of what is to come.

Interspersed between each chapter are short writing samples from the setting, some personal to Richie, his journal, or e-mails, others referencing him or his work, in interviews, reviews, or in the case of Breitbart, a character assassination. These also provide the greatest insights into the social evolution told about in Buying Time, and the formation of how society comes to appear in 2030.

These uninspiring political references are, unfortunately, the story’s biggest failings. The vision of 2030 depicted in Buying Time is that of a prejudiced fascist dystopia, built off the backs of Britain’s recent Brexit vote and Trump’s time as US President. The portrayal feels lacklustre though, with the comparative normality in a socialist Scotland giving an underwhelming alternative. There’s too much in the book related to the current political climate for it to be a mere backdrop, yet it doesn’t retain sufficient focus for the novel to offer any serious commentary or analysis. The setting occupied by Shaw feels simultaneously excessive and uninspired, although some of the samples between chapters manage to use their brevity to achieve a level of satire unseen in the more detailed descriptions.

At its best, Buying Time is reminiscent of Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle, with the different snapshots of Ed Richie’s life providing an elegant overview of his personality and experiences, as well as visions of an alternative path of history, albeit with a very different method of exploring divergent timelines. As well as the snapshot comparison though, both stories struggle with an engaging plot, with only one half of the characters described here actually working towards any sort of goal or accomplishment. Unlike Dick’s recently televised classic though, Buying Time does at least reach an actual conclusion, finishing with a definitive, albeit somewhat predictable end.

Fundamentally, Buying Time, is a character-driven novel, showcasing Ed Richie’s personal growth and development as he jumps back through time, catching glimpses of mistakes he’s made, both from his own view, and from Shaw’s investigative stance. These mistakes aren’t anything particularly dramatic, or built off any lack of achievement – the alternating chapters set in 2030 show his notable success in the intervening period – but his failings as a human being. The unique twist on time-travel comes across as elegant, offering an interesting and stylistic method of evoking a very grounded and real personality.

A worthwhile read, that evocatively draws the reader into Richie’s perception of himself, but with a distinct feeling that Buying Time strove to be a grander form of fiction than it managed to achieve.

Buying Time is now available to purchase at all good booksellers.

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