Kaliane Bradley Fell in Love With a Dead Man. The Result Is The Ministry of Time.

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Kaliane Bradley had grown rather infatuated with Graham Gore, which was a problem, given the man had been born about two centuries too early. The now-long-deceased Victorian polar explorer had perished during a lost 1845 Royal Navy voyage to the Arctic, later known as the infamous Franklin expedition. In spite of his age—and his general lack of earthly existence—Bradley found the officer remarkably handsome. The attraction bloomed at the height of the pandemic; like so many others, Bradley had developed a fixation, except hers was neither sourdough nor houseplants nor indoor workout equipment, but the dimples mirrored on either side of Graham Gore’s face. She studied the sole existing daguerreotype of him with an increasing sense of wonder, noting his curls, his “dramatic nose,” and slight smile. “Did I stare at the picture too long?” Bradley asks herself when we meet in April. “Maybe I stared at the picture too long.”

The 35-year-old Bradley is a British-Cambodian author and an editor at Penguin Press in the U.K., where she’s based the ultimate result of her obsession: an enchanting debut novel called The Ministry of Time. In this genre-breaking time-travel tale of love and identity and destruction, Bradley has reincarnated Graham Gore, or at least a version of him who might charm 21st-century Britain with his anachronisms. Transplanted from the brink of death in the Arctic to a near-future London—along with a group of fellow historical “expats” from various centuries—Gore warms to his British-Cambodian “bridge,” a modern civil servant meant to steer his safe assimilation into a new era. As Bradley writes in Ministry, “He didn’t understand my use of the term ‘classical music,’ which meant something to do with formal classicism to him and meant, to me, that it had violins. He hated ‘text’ as a verb, ‘sex’ as an act, ‘tomato’ as a salad product. One afternoon he came in from a walk and asked me, very thoughtfully, ‘Some charming young women—out on the heath—addressed me quite boisterously—what is a ‘DILF’?”

The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

<i>The Ministry of Time</i> by Kaliane Bradley

Credit: Avid Reader Press

Ministry, as you might have inferred, is very funny. It was also never really intended to exist. Bradley first fell down her polar expedition rabbit hole during the pandemic, as she watched the AMC television series The Terror, in which Gore shows up as a minor character. Several Google searches (and a lot of staring at that daguerreotype) later, Bradley discovered a community of polar expedition enthusiasts online, for which she started writing clever little vignettes about Gore brushing up against the absurdity of an England changed beyond his recognition: encountering washing machines and climate change and political correctness. She wrote a chapter a week for these new online friends, simply “to entertain them.” Her “serious” work was a far more traditionally literary novel, “the big novel about the Khmer Rouge, about Cambodia, about the refugee experience, about the British-Cambodian experience,” as Bradley calls it. “I thought I had a duty to write it,” she tells me, but admits, “No good writing comes out of the sense of duty of telling yourself, ‘Well, I have to do this because this is the only thing I should be doing and it’s the only thing I have any right to talk about.’ That novel just didn’t work. It was a miserable experience.”

Her polar expedition friends saw the potential in the Graham Gore stories, however ridiculous. They told her this was the novel, the British-Cambodian novel, and they were, of course, correct. Bradley put a solid draft together—initially written in second-person—in a matter of weeks, cleaning up her copy in the evenings and sending the manuscript off with a pseudonym she later dropped for her real name. When the book sold, it did so in a 48-hour bidding deal. Ministry has since enjoyed a significant marketing push from Avid Reader Press, part of Simon & Schuster, in the U.S.; it’s a GMA Book Club pick; translation rights were sold in 17 different languages; and a TV show is already in development with A24 and the BBC.

When I ask Bradley why she chose to publish under her real (and full) name, rather than “Ka” Bradley, as she’s often referred to at work, she replies, “That’s a good question. Vanity?” Eventually, she concludes, “I wrote some of my very, very, very early stories under the name Ka Bradley, because I used the name Ka Bradley in publishing, and my mother, who is Cambodian, was always a bit baffled that I wouldn’t use the Cambodian name that she’d given me, and I do understand that. I imagine it felt very strange for her, and increasingly it felt strange for me to be using this fake name.”

kaliane bradley posing next to a tree

Robin Christian

This precise dissonance runs throughout many of the thought processes and interactions endured by Bradley’s unnamed narrator in Ministry, also a British-Cambodian woman whose relationship to British institutions (and “British”-ness as a concept) warps as the novel goes on. Bradley, who herself grew up in Northeast London, jokes often about writing the book as a way to navigate her love for Graham Gore, but The Ministry of Time is much more of an indictment of colonial empire than a sweet escapist romance. The book frequently chooses painful and unsettling paths to tread, its humor less a soothing balm than a razor’s edge. The late sci-fi legend Terry Pratchett taught a young Bradley, enthralled by his Discworld series, that humor could be a weapon. During our own conversation, Bradley paraphrases a quote of Pratchett’s: “Funny is not the opposite of serious; the opposite of funny is unfunny. The opposite of serious is unserious. You can be funny, but also be talking about very serious things.”

This similarly explains Bradley’s own tendency to coat her language with a wry drop of very dark (and very British) humor. I ask what it’s like to witness such unusual ceremony around her debut novel, and how she’s envisioning the book on the BBC screen, and she blanches. “I am always so worried that if I, in any way, anticipate something joyful or exciting, the universe will take it away from me,” she says. “I was brought up a Buddhist, and I think I’ve taken the idea of karma, and I’ve made it something to punish me specifically. [The book] will be adapted. I keep on thinking it probably won’t be, though. Maybe the BBC will vanish into the Earth.”

Even if such a tragedy comes to pass, at least Bradley will have the love of her life by her side: She and her partner, Sam, plan to wed later this summer. But for anyone particularly attached to her ongoing Graham Gore affair, she insists she’s keeping him close at hand. An “enormous” portrait of the Victorian sailor hangs over her home office in London as she drafts her second novel. “I just look at him,” she says, “and I think, ‘Did this for you, baby.’”

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