A Book Review of Douglas Board's Time of Lies
by Michael R. Burch
Douglas Board’s Time of Lies has been called a dystopian novel, a
Brexlit novel, a post-Brexit
novel, even a post-truth novel (the latter by its author). But in this review I
will focus primarily on the question: “Is it a good read?”
I found Time of Lies to be a fast-paced, highly entertaining work of fiction
(unless it comes closer to reality than I care to admit). Board throws us into a
British election in medias res and lets us figure out what’s going on with quick
glimpses of events and little snatches of information here and there. The
central antagonist is a Trump-like politico, Bob Grant, whom we find running for
Prime Minister in the year 2020. The main protagonist is his brother, Jack, who
has changed his name to Zack Parris and taken up acting. The brothers have
little in common except a once-shared last name, a few years of uncongenial
family history, and a bitter mutual disdain for each other.
We learn about Bob Grant largely through what he says and does, and what other
people make of him. He informs the British public that “This country’s for
people who know it’s great.” He is described as the “least house-trained” of the
candidates. Psychologists consider him to be more unpredictable than Trump. In
his youth he was a street thug and a knife-fighter who stabbed a friend to death
by his own admission. The last thing he wrote on his own was a contest entry for
one of the first PlayStations. He is obsessed with nukes and apparently inclined
to use them. His brother loathes him, and understandably fears what he will do
if he gets elected Prime Minister.
Then, of course, he does get elected. Now the stage is set, and what will the
author do with it?
Board managed to keep me on the edge of my seat with a plot that is part James
Bond, part dark comedy, part social satire, part political thriller. And there
are some truly zany moments that reminded me at times of A Clockwork Orange,
Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove.
One of the novel’s scarier aspects—because it could be happening as we speak—is
the organization of young malcontents into a group called the Vigilance. BG, as
Bob Grant is called (and as his movement and party are also called), rules
largely by tweets after his election and the Vigilance function as his police
and paramilitaries, when they’re not ruthlessly taking the law into their own
hands. One is reminded of the Hitler Youth, but the Vigilance have the
advantages of modern technology: cell phones, social media, drones, etc.
BG, his party and his administration are supremely unpredictable: “No-one in BG
has done anything in government before. They’ve never asked a question in
Parliament, let alone answered one.” Writing like this makes me think highly of
Board. He says a lot in a few words, and he says it well.
All three BG’s seem to be not only planless, but unthinking. As Zack’s wife
Kathy explains, “Their game is changing the game.” The question is not whether
disaster will strike, but how soon and how terribly.
I will refrain from giving any more of the plot away. There are enough
unexpected twists to keep the book interesting even when we have a pretty good
idea what may happen next. Then the end is completely unpredictable, and
In my opinion, Time of Lies is a book well worth reading. If you have no
interest in thrillers, mysteries, dark comedies, politics, satires or
apocalypses, you may want to give it a pass. But I think most readers will find
it entertaining enough to read to the end, and will be glad that they did.
Now, a very brief discussion about our prospects for survival. People who don’t
care about surviving can stop reading now!
Dystopian novels can go beyond ordinary literature into the realm of the
prophetic. Not prophetic in a mystical sense, but a rational one. Novels like
1984 and Time of Lies require us to consider a future that could come to pass,
but also might be avoided. What to do, then? There is a strong moral streak in
Board’s protagonists Zack and his wife Kathy. They act out of compassion and
decency when other people do nothing, or choose to do the wrong things. Is this
how the human race will survive, if it is to pull through with any remaining
trace of humanity? What if we all got off our asses and did the right things for
the right reasons: voting for instance? Or perhaps spending more time with young
people and showing them better ways to think and act? Or how about working
together to “smooth out” the obvious frictions between the haves and have-nots,
which was the root cause of the French Revolution? One thing Bob Grant made me
see more clearly was how resentment on the part of right-wingers springs up from
the way they have been treated, or mistreated, by the powers that be. One might
venture that the “deplorables” were treated deplorably before they started to
I think we can learn important things from such books, although learning and
acting on what we learn are optional (and perhaps unlikely byproducts).
When I finished Time of Lies, I had the thought that if more people acted like
Zack and Kathy, the book would have been the wildest fiction imaginable. Nothing
could be more preposterous than someone like Bob Grant being elected Prime
Minister of Great Britain ... except that Donald Trump was recently elected
President of the United States. Suddenly, the surreal threatens to become our
reality. And it could quite conceivably happen in 2020, if we last that long.
Are we able to avoid such a calamitous future? Yes, I think so. But we would
need to consider the evidence, get off our duffs, act and (especially) vote. The
better-qualified among us would have to run for various offices. But will we do
so in sufficient numbers to put the BG's of the world back in their proper
places? That remains to be seen. I recently learned that a tiny organism called
a “water bear” is a possible replacement for human beings as the earth’s
dominant species, if we don’t clean up our act soon!
Douglas Board's novel Time of Lies can be purchased from the publisher,
Eye Books, or from
Michael R. Burch’s poems, translations, articles and letters have appeared in
TIME, USA Today, The Washington Post, Writer’s Digest and hundreds of
literary journals. He also edits