Review of ‘Borrowed Time’ by Naomi A. Alderman

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Borrowed time is the second new release from BBC Books and, like The Triple Knife, it has been previously published in some form previously. Written by prize-winning author Naomi A. Alderman, it was previously released in hardback during the tenure of the Eleventh Doctor, but this attractive re-branded paperback is well worth a second look.

Doctor Who doesn’t have a terrific track record when it comes to stories in which time itself is a pivotal element – The Time Monster, Timelash, the TV Movie – none of them are the series’ brightest moments, but where Borrowed Time scores over all of those is in its innovative approach of using time as a commodity, and a negotiable one at that.

Borrowed Time primarily takes place in a bank; not your local branch (if you can still find one of those) but a big-city financial institution, in which the go-getting young tie-over-the-shoulder types are so keen on getting one step ahead of their colleagues that they’re prepared to ‘borrow time’ from some mysterious businessmen who turn out to be alien beings. One of the aliens’ customers is a certain Amy Pond, who loves all the time that her new ‘time watch’ allows her – until the Doctor finds out and explains that the time borrowed accrues with crippling rates of compound interest.

The story is successful on two levels. Firstly, it’s a very clever satire on big business, banking in particular and the evils of compound interest. The aliens at the centre of the story are, very tellingly, sharks and their sales patter when trying to sell someone their services is immediately recognisable to anyone who’s ever had a letter offering them a high-interest credit card. It’s clear that Alderman is familiar with office life, as the goings-on in front of and behind the scenes are (if you’ll excuse the pun) on the money, full of meaningless business jargon and superficial ideology. To anyone who’s ever worked in a large office, this will all seem terrifyingly familiar.

Secondly, it nails the Eleven, Amy and Rory dynamic perfectly. This might seem like a pretty mandatory requirement for a story set in that era, but believe me it’s no mean feat. Some of these books either opt for a generic approach that could pretty much be any Doctor and any companion, or else the author stamps their own approach on the material, sometimes jarring appallingly. No such trouble with Borrowed Time though; Alderman writes all of the characters beautifully and this could easily have fit into Series 5 or 6 of the new series.

Another place where the book scores is that it never sags, not for one second. It’s surprisingly brisk, but that doesn’t stop a lot of books from slowing to a crawl around the mid-second-half, but borrowed time just keeps up the pace for its entire duration. A swift reader could probably knock this one back in a day, but that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in substance. Not only are the Doctor and his companions well-drawn, but the characters that they meet in and around the bank are similarly impressive. They may start off as a bunch of unlikable suits, but the author succeeds in turning them round into characters we really care about.

A wise choice is to keep the cast of secondary characters quite small. There’s nothing worse than a short novel that throws dozens of characters at you, to the extent that you don’t find out too much about them and basically don’t care; but Borrowed Time keeps its dramatis personae quite tight and we stick with them during their journey through the story. The characters of Sameera and Andrew might start off as annoyingly ambitious, but through a mixture of familiarity and good writing, we get to really care about them by the end.

Borrowed Time is a really good novel. I’m not sure why I missed it the first time around, but in a way I’m kind of glad I did, because it sits beautifully in its new, modern imprint. I’m not sure why it is, but the aesthete in me can enjoy the words in a book ten times more if the cover is pleasing. And this one is. Definitely one to add to your collection.

‘Borrowed Time’ by Naomi A. Alderman is published in paperback by BBC Books / Penguin Random House (2018).

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