Review: Paris Adrift

EJ Swift’s Paris Adrift is one of Those Books, you know? The books you enjoy just fine at the time of reading but, three months later, you remember nothing about. Our protagonist is Hallie, a disaffected young woman who’s run away from a neglectful family in England to work in a bar in Paris called Millie’s. She soon discovers that there’s an anomaly in the bar’s basement that sends her travelling through time – back into Paris’ history and forwards into its future. A secret society of time travellers who use a network of such anomalies are trying to manipulate her into changing history in order to avert a far-future apocalypse, breaking their own code of practice in doing so.

Abigail Nussbaum in Strange Horizons notes that the novel is very heavy on the Great Person theory of history: the theory that the right person in the right place can change everything. The Great Person in this case is Aide Lefort, a far-left politician building a movement out of kindness alone, it would seem. Like Nussbaum, I was highly suspicious of Lefort on reading about the mundane platitudes contained in her campaigning material:

“Why not introduce yourself to your neighbors? Volunteer at a food kitchen. Join a carpool. Recycle everything you use for a week. Talk to a homeless person and share their story. Offer your spare room to a refugee family. Donate to a humanitarian crisis.”

Surely she would turn out to be a fraud, a conwoman, or at least a feckless viral advertiser? But no. Apparently this is how Swift thinks political change is achieved: by good intentions and good actions on the individual level.

A key source of tension in the novel is the fact that time travel is both addictive and dangerous: the more you do it, the greater the risk of becoming a sort of disembodied malevolent spirit. So one of the questions the novel asks is about sacrifice, about weighing personal survival against the fate of the world. And one of the assumptions it makes in asking that question is that personal survival is a sufficient price for the fate of the world – in other words, that one person can change the fate of the world through sacrifice. Hardly a new or interesting angle; and the choices the characters make in response to this dilemma are unsurprising. There’s also a plotline in which Hallie must save a Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Paris and convince her to keep playing her cello – she’s another Great Person whose survival will help save the world.

It’s weird, because Paris Adrift is clearly on the left politically: the apocalypse is apparently to be kicked off by a fascist French state with its origins in the National Front; and the international staff of Millie’s literally have an entire conversation about whose country has the shittiest far-right leader. And yet the text’s emphasis on personal responsibility is, of course, a stalwart of right-wing thinking. As a philosophy it’s also self-evidently insufficient to deal with the massive social problems highlighted by the text itself: many liberals will be wondering at the moment just what individual good actions can do against the spread of populism and nationalistic sentiment.

It’s not that Paris Adrift is a bad book, it’s just underpowered and under-thought. There’s very little that’s new or interesting going on here, and it’s not fun enough to make up for that lack either. I’m not saying don’t read it, but also…why would you when there’s so much else out there?

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