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  • Writer's pictureCaroline K. Mackenzie

A Time Travel Triumph

Review of Caroline Lawrence’s The Time Travel Diaries.

An ivory knife, wooden box and two little glass bottles were the inspiration behind Caroline Lawrence’s latest historical novel, The Time Travel Diaries. Although the artefacts are small, they are of huge significance as they were the grave goods buried with a fourteen-year-old girl whose bones were excavated by archaeologists in Southwark, close to the Tate Modern. They are now on display at the Museum of London.

Author Caroline Lawrence with her new historical novel, The Time Travel Diaries © Caroline Mackenzie

Caroline Lawrence has skilfully combined the bioarchaeological evidence from this important discovery with her vivid imagination and brilliant story-telling to create a compelling tale based on ‘the girl with the ivory knife’ whom we meet as the character Lollia. We join Alexander, the unlikely hero of the adventure (his nickname is ‘Wimpy’), as he goes back in time through a portal to 260 AD and explores Roman London, or Londinium. His mission is to track down Lollia, at the request of a modern-day billionaire businessman, a likeable larger than life character and physical embodiment of excess with ‘a belly stretched against a … T-shirt size XXXL’.

Leopard ivory knife, glass bottle and other grave goods on display at the Museum of London © Caroline Mackenzie

By framing the story in contemporary London, Lawrence initially takes us on a tour of the modern architectural landmarks of the city including the Gherkin, Shard and Bank of England ‘looking like a temple dedicated to money’, which is both exciting and informative for young readers. Lawrence’s love of London shines through - born in London to American parents, she grew up in California, returned to England to study and now lives in the capital, by the river. The juxtaposition of the description of contemporary London with Alex’s adventures through the streets of Londinium (the amphitheatre, basilica and Temple of Jupiter to name but a few archaeological sites) effortlessly brings the world of Roman Londoners to life and renders the stories of Lollia and her slave-girl Plecta believable and engaging. By drawing us into their world, Lawrence covers numerous historical aspects: Roman marriage (‘“Married? Aren’t you too young?”…“I’ll be fourteen in the autumn,” she said.’), slavery (Lollia has a penchant for slapping Plecta), healthcare (or, rather, lack of it), clothing, education (‘”Girls don’t go to school.”’), diet, transport and of course religion. The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE was the other main source of inspiration for this book and the cult of Mithras forms a continuous thread throughout the story. This creates a hugely didactic book but one which is instantly accessible to children through its use of humour and straightforward language removing many of the usual barriers for dyslexic children. Young readers will assimilate knowledge without even realising it. There is even some science: ‘“What is inorganic?” “It means metal or stone or anything not alive.”’ and ‘“Is the key bronze?”… “Yes, although we call it copper-alloy these days”’.

The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE © Caroline Mackenzie

Likewise, smatterings of Latin and Ancient Greek grace the pages frequently and will succeed in sparking enthusiastic interest in the ancient languages: ‘“Optime,” I said, which means ‘excellent’’. Cleverly, Latin words are often used as ‘code’ or to extract characters from tricky situations (in which Alex invariably finds himself) so children will see the languages as adventurous and fun, opening doors to a hidden world. This reminded me of a habit adopted by some of my former pupils of passing notes to each other in the playground written in Latin or the Greek alphabet to add mystique and excitement to whatever game they were playing - a sort of secret club of which they were proud to be members.

The Time Travel Diaries includes references to a lunchtime Latin club at Alex’s fictional school, ‘Wandsworth Academy’, and I would not be surprised if this book inspires some of its readers to set up similar clubs at their own schools. Not only are Lawrence’s books superbly researched from a historical perspective, her former teaching career has given her an authentic insight into the minds of children - their hopes, fears (‘Have you ever had that nightmare where you show up at school to find everybody pointing at you and laughing and you realise you’re wearing only your Spiderman underwear?’) and sense of humour. Her infamous poo sticks are absent in this book but there are fitting references to ‘wiping your bottom’ and ‘a twelve-seater toilet’ complete with accompanying smells - Lawrence’s writing employs and celebrates all our senses.

Of course, Lawrence has already introduced thousands of children to the Classical world through her The Roman Mysteries series, in which Flavia and friends embark on adventures in locations such as Ostia and Pompeii, Famous Five style but loaded with didactic qualities. Readers who enjoyed those will not be disappointed with this new offering, which brings Classics closer to home with contemporary references: James Bond films, salt-and-vinegar crisps and one character’s dismay when time travel does not change the fact that ‘Trump is still president’. Equally, readers need not be familiar with Flavia and her journeys to delight in accompanying Alex on his.

I highly recommend this book to children and adults alike - I could not put it down. It is a celebration of London as well as the Classical world and its legacy; the narrative is fun and dynamic. Yet it also touches on important issues such as bullying (there is a twist in the portrayal of Alex’s ‘arch-nemesis’ Dinu), bereavement and moral codes. Such difficult issues are dealt with sympathetically and accompanied by messages of comfort and hope. Humour is cleverly combined with empathy, family values (Alex is devoted to his ‘hippy Gran’ with her ‘batik wall hangings and… joss sticks’), the problems of peer pressure and large class sizes at school. There is even a cameo role for Caecilius from the Cambridge Latin Course, who will be familiar to many pupils who have learned Latin at school.

Alex’s adventure will inspire visits to the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE - its immersive experience is accurately described - and the Museum of London where the ivory knife, wooden box and two little glass bottles mentioned above can be seen up-close. Although I had seen them before reading The Time Travel Diaries, I felt quite differently viewing them after getting to know the albeit fictional character of Lollia, in whose grave these gifts were once lovingly placed.

While the book has a satisfying conclusion (no spoilers here!) fans will be delighted to learn that a sequel is already underway, to follow in January 2020. In the meantime, Lawrence has written a book to share her story-telling tips: How to Write a Great Story, released August 2019, and I look forward to reviewing that in a subsequent blog.

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