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Paris Adrift by E. J. Swift

Paris Adrift by E. J. Swift
4.5
Book Name: Paris Adrift
Author: E. J. Swift
Publisher(s): Solaris
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Time Travel / Alternate History
Release Date: February 6, 2018

“I always imagined that it was possible to cast off those elements of myself that I disliked or did not want. I had come to Paris cleansed; in my wake was a trail of the undesirable, stretching back like flotsam after the tide. I didn’t plan to look back. But that’s an impossible ambition. Your identity is an evolution in itself. It is sedimentation. Each new facet compresses the one before, but can never entirely erase it. Below the smooth, polished face we present to the world, we have fault lines, glitches, air bubbles. If we were made from rock, our history would be decipherable as mineral, and like sandstone, the fossils buried in our pasts can, and will, emerge to haunt us. But it is up to us if we allow them to dictate the future.”

E. J. Swift’s Paris Adrift (2018) is a sumptuous love letter to the city of Paris, its history and its people. It is a time travel novel that serves as a wakeup call, showing the fragility of freedom and democracy, and how they are worth fighting for, and the bitter consequences of failing to do so. But at its heart it is a warm and engaging coming of age tale, an exploration of identity, and the fleetingness of youth. The end result is a story that feels both personal and political, both timely and timeless. That Swift manages to weave all these threads into such a compelling, lyrical and readable novel is testament to her growing skill as a writer.

Paris Adrift tells the story of Hallie, a runaway student who winds up working at Millie’s, the bar next to the Moulin Rouge. In this small bar in Paris, away from her past, she begins to form a new family with the diverse cast of misfits she works with – including the charming and mysterious Léon, Gabriela, who is inexplicably unable to go home, the exuberant Angel, and the cynical Russian philosophy student Dušanka.

However she soon has stranger concerns than friendships and falling in love. The basement of Millie’s harbours a secret: the anomaly, which is connected to Hallie and allows her to travel through time. The chronometrist, a disembodied voice who speaks to her through different bodies, begins sending her on missions across time for a purpose she cannot know. As the consequences of her actions in the past spiral into the future, Hallie is drawn closer and closer to a revelation about herself and the anomaly which will threaten the life she’s made for herself.

Paris Adrift stands in contrast to all those time travel stories about the inevitability of history. In this story, there is no predestination; people have choices, and these choices can affect the outcome of history. The House of Janus, an association of time travellers, has chosen Hallie to travel back in time and make certain changes to prevent the devastating war that will leave Earth a barren wasteland in the future. But Hallie doesn’t affect change by violence; it is by acts of kindness and humanity that she is able to avert the terrible future. It’s also notable that Hallie is never given the big picture; she only finds out about her mission after its success, the chronometrist giving her minimal cryptic hints and her actions arising from her trying to do the best in any given situation. In this way, Swift reaffirms our faith that acts of kindness between individual human beings can have world changing effects, and that the biggest global disasters are within our power to avert.

The level of personal empathy and lived-in lives allows Swift to bring the reader vividly through Paris’ past and futures. Hallie travels to 1875, the year of construction of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. Here, through befriending Millie, who works as an entertainer in Paris’ nightclubs, Hallie gets a window into the everyday life at the time – the glamour of the night scene anticipating the arrival of the Moulin Rouge contrasted with a city in ruins and on edge, still traumatised from the years of war and famine. Another mission sends Hallie to Nazi occupied Paris, where she helps a Jewish cellist Rachel Clouarte escape from the Nazis with the cello her parents gave her before they were taken to the camps. Here we see a Paris under curfew, where the bars are full of Nazi soldiers and everyday Parisians live in fear of being turned in by their neighbours.

Swift’s well drawn and fleshed out characters give us a personal entry point into these different time periods, reminding us how people interact with the social and political realities around them whilst grounding history in the relatable. In both these turbulent periods, we see Paris as a dangerous place, full of fear and paranoia, with normal people driven to do terrible things. However we also see the enormous resilience of the Parisian spirit, determined to continue through the worst of things and to passionately fight for what is right. In the end neither war nor occupation can stamp out Paris’ essential nature, nor prevent it from becoming the city Hallie comes to love.

The historical elements are carried through to Hallie’s present day Paris, and through into the glimpses we get of Paris’ future. The ghastly dystopian Paris of the future that Hallie and her boyfriend Léon travel to is all the more frightening for the real world parallels Swift draws between this racist, extremist future, and Paris under the Nazis. For all her faith in humanity, Swift never shies away from the evil that normal people are capable of committing – Léon is turned in to the authorities by the pleasant couple who invite him into their home and offer him breakfast. Acts of evil, like acts of heroism, are committed by ordinary people. Similarly, by emphasising dark periods of Paris’ past and describing a fascistic future Paris, Swift highlights the fragility of democracy. Democracy is something that we will lose if we aren’t prepared to stand up for it, and by showing us the ghastly alternatives, Swift reminds us how much it is worth standing up and fighting for.

As well as being a profound mediation on history and the need to defend democracy, Paris Adrift is also a gorgeous evocation of youth and growing up. Swift perfectly captures that period in one’s life when one is stretching one’s wings and discovering one’s independence for the first time. Hallie’s makeshift family is full of the intensity, passion, and ultimately unsustainability you get from living in each other’s pockets as young adults. Part of discovering who we are is going out into the world and forming these makeshift families, but part of the lifestyle of places like Millie’s is the fact that it’s temporary as people move on and get on with the next stage of their lives. Paris Adrift is a celebration of that particular moment in our lives, when we feel those connections all the more strongly because we know on some level they will come to an end.

Ultimately, Hallie comes to realise that she, like Paris, is the result of the accumulation of her past, and she will never be able to run from that, but also, like the city, her future is not written in stone, and it is within her power to change it.

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