What’s it like to crush on a Victorian man transported to modern London? Kaliane Bradley had to find out

I have never crushed on a Victorian polar explorer before. The thought simply never occurred to me, mostly due to a lack of exposure: Outside of the (very good) TV series The Terror, I’ve frankly never had much time to consider them, or the many ways they might be charming. Kaliane Bradley, however, has — and she’s written a whole book that might convince you to crush on one too.

The Ministry of Time, Bradley’s debut novel, follows an unnamed protagonist working for the British government on a top-secret time travel project. In an experiment to test the limits of their technology, the eponymous Ministry has plucked a number of “expats” throughout history and paired them with handlers dubbed “bridges,” to effectively be their roommates, reporting on how well the expats adjust to modernity. The protagonist’s assigned expat is Lieutenant Graham Gore, a polar explorer formerly assigned to the HMS Erebus (a sister ship of The Terror), and, eventually, a man she will crush on extremely hard.

Author Kaliane Bradley stands beside a tree underneath a pavilion with an arm behind her back.
Author Kaliane Bradley
Photo: Robin Christian

However, Bradley’s got much more up her sleeve than a fish-out-of-water comedy or a star-crossed romance. The Ministry of Time is a twisty, compelling read that takes its (very funny) premise and blends it with a bit of a spy novel, a paranoid thriller, a commentary on identity, and a rumination on the inherited trauma that can come with mixed-race heritage.

The book is an early critical hit for the summer season, and it’s already slated for a BBC adaptation by Alice Birch (Prime Video’s Dead Ringers and Hulu’s adaptation of Normal People), produced by A24, no less. Recently, Polygon spoke to Bradley about what inspired her to write The Ministry of Time (the pandemic) and the many, many things on her mind while writing it.

Polygon: As I understand it, The Ministry of Time started as a joke during pandemic lockdown, yeah?

Kaliane Bradley: Yes. So it started as just kind of joke, a gift to these friends that I’ve made online, because I got very interested in historical polar exploration — which, you know, is one of those normal things that happen to you during lockdown. You get very deeply interested in something like — I can see you nodding, did you get deeply interested in something slightly deranged?

Theme park promotional videos and old TV lineups.

Then you know! Like, Well, perhaps my brain will only do this now! [laughs] I just thought about polar exploration very intensely, particularly this one expedition, which lots of people thankfully are interested in — it could have been a more obscure expedition, one no one wants to talk about!

I didn’t ever intend for this to be a book, just a fun story to make [friends] laugh. And as I was writing, I just kind of did it. The development of the storyline very much came from having to confront what it would actually be like to live with a British imperialist who sincerely believed in the British Empire. So the more serious themes were always present, but the love story, the fish-out-of-water comedy, and the tragic comedy of bureaucracy was always at the heart of it.

A thing I appreciate about the fish-out-of-water comedy here is that Graham Gore is not a bumbling clown, right? I feel like you see a lot of these kinds of stories and they lean into the fish-out-of-water stuff a little too hard.

Yeah, they want you to really laugh at this hapless person. Panicking at the traffic light.


All these people — they’re called expats in the book — who are extracted from the past are all people and when even if you are pulled from a different time, a different culture, a different country… people aren’t fools. They will find ways to adapt.

Right but then there’s also Graham Gore’s wit and uh, savvy.

[Laughs] I just was really interested in this historical figure about whom there is almost no archival material. If you want to keep up a conversation with a crush who is dead, you have to write! I wanted to hang out with this guy, but there was no way I could do it except by writing a whole conversation.

I also think the book is pretty clear that Graham’s relationship with the narrator is going to take a romantic turn.

Absolutely. I definitely did not attempt to hide that!

You did wait just long enough before they finally hook up. Although I do love his frustration with the narrator’s ignorance, when he says “I was courting you!”

Like, What are you talking about? You haven’t pinched my butt once! [Laughs]

What’s interesting to me about this collision of history and romance is that both are about contending with the fundamental unknowability of people. There are a lot of tragic things about the narrator in this book, but one of the biggest is that she’s studied Graham Gore so much that she forgets he’s a person.

I think there’s this dangerous idea, that you can intellectualize knowing someone, or someone could become a product of research that you could you could finally be the be all and end all the expert of knowing someone. I really love, by the way, the fundamental unknowability in romance and in history, that’s so good. And now that you’ve expressed it, I feel like that is the illuminating factor in the book.

Would you say that extends to the protagonist and how she regards her background? She seems to like have intellectualized her mixed heritage like it’s on a shelf for her.

Absolutely. So she is like me, British-Cambodian, mixed race and white passing. And she very much doesn’t want to deal with the inherited trauma of being Cambodian, in an emotional way. She doesn’t want to process any of that, she doesn’t want to have to admit that she is living with inherited trauma, because it just makes things like power, control and ambition more difficult. So she absolutely has this idea that she’s just put her identity on a shelf, she can take it down when it’s useful. And when it’s not, she can just store it. You can’t do that with yourself. She just thinks she can. And that’s going to take her on a very horrible complicated journey.

Watching her fall for Graham is a contrast to how disaffected she is otherwise, as a bureaucrat. I read it wondering Am I watching her become subsumed by the State or was she already at the start?

The very first version of this book I wrote — she was very passive. There was not so much ambition. She was someone who was happy to let things happen to her, because she didn’t want to claim too much responsibility. But of course, that didn’t feel quite right for someone who is in this quite high paid, high-powered job. So I do think she had to become an ambitious person. And she did have to give up bits of herself, to become subsumed in the State.

Maybe this is just me, but I do sometimes think that extreme ambition or extreme desire for control tends to result in a kind of sublimation of the self into the desire to be on top. There isn’t even really a conception of a person controlling other people or your relationship with other people. It’s just this blank conception of power. I think having a lot of money makes people a bit bonkers. I think a lot of power makes people a bit bonkers. It smoothes some of their frontal lobe.

It’s so funny talking to you about this book, because I naturally want to gravitate towards the big meaty ideas, but it makes it sound more severe than the experience of reading it is!

I’m always like, yes, it’s about imperialism! And generational trauma! And how terrible the nation of England is! But it is also about trying to get the Victorian man to give someone a little kiss.

The Ministry of Time is now available wherever books are sold.