The Outcasts of Time

Written by Ian Mortimer
Review by Tracey Warr

Two brothers, John and William, one a stonemason and the other a wool merchant, walk home in December 1348, passing through a Devon landscape devastated by plague. Trying to do a kind act, John picks up a baby whose parents have died by the roadside, but his good deed leads to misery and mystery as the brothers find themselves travelling forward through time. Each time they lay down to sleep, they wake up in the same place 99 years further into the future.

The horrors of the 14th-century plague are vividly and movingly depicted. The brief visits to each century are evoked with highly detailed descriptions of, for example, tin-miners on Dartmoor in the 16th century, Cromwell’s army in the 17th century, the cruelties of an 18th-century workhouse, and the bombing of Exeter in the second world war. The hero, John, witnesses and struggles to understand vertiginous changes in society, religion, technology, architecture, and social mores. “The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom,” he remarks.

Having greatly admired Ian Mortimer’s history books—the Time Traveller’s Guides to the medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration periods—I worried that this novel might read as an exercise by a historian showing off his knowledge. Instead I found myself drawn into this tale by the characterisation of the two brothers; the sweeping tragi-comedy of their encounters with the sensuous, everyday details of other times; and the slow-building suspense as to how they might redeem their souls. A highly ambitious and fascinating story in which “home is not a place but a time”.