The Upper World by Femi Fadugba

August 19, 2021



Esso is running out of time and into trouble. After he is accidentally caught up in a gang war, he is haunted by a vision of a bullet fired in an alleyway with devastating consequences.

A generation later, fifteen-year-old football prodigy Rhia is desperately searching for answers – and a catastrophic moment from the past holds the key to understanding the parents she never got to meet.

Whether on the roads of South London or in the mysterious Upper World, Esso and Rhia”s fates must collide.

And when they do, a race against the clock will become a race against time itself. . .

The Eloquent Page is back after a short self-imposed break, and this week I’ve been taking a look at the time travel science fiction novel The Upper World by Femi Fadugba.

Esso is a typical teen. He just wants to spend his days hanging out with friends or daydreaming about a certain girl at school. Unfortunately, the threat of gang violence is always present, and Esso has an uncanny knack for ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rhia is haunted by the ghosts of the parents she never knew. Until she can reconcile their passing, she cannot hope to move forward with her life. Rhia meets a strange man who may offer the very opportunity she is looking for.

Though they are separated by nearly two decades Esso and Rhia are part of the same story. Events that play out in one time period have direct consequences in the other. As an observer looking on, it is fascinating to see how this all plays out.

The author has a keen eye when it comes to fleshing out the humanity in Esso and Rhia. They are both traversing that difficult patch of life between childhood and the adults they are destined to become. Being a teenager is like walking a minefield in a blindfold, and there is a refreshing honesty to Fadugba’s interpretation of his characters. No matter their failing or flaws when it comes to the pivotal moments in each of their respective journeys, you are left in no doubt they will do whatever it takes to move forward. I like that feeling of grim determination.

Chapters alternate between teenage Esso in present-day London and Rhia fifteen years in the future. I was impressed by the way the two seemingly disparate threads of narrative begin to weave together. You can see Esso and Rhia are hurtling towards a single life-altering moment. How they get there is executed flawlessly.

I’ll be honest, time travel always messes with my brain whenever it pops up in any novel. I worry it will be too complicated for me to understand the technicalities of it all. No need to fear in this case, however. If anyone can explain the intricacies of time and space, even to an idiot like me, it is going to be an author with a masters degree from Oxford who has studied quantum physics. There are some handy diagrams in the back of the book which also helped a lot.

When it comes to the novel’s setting the near-future chapters are particularly well done. There is nothing outlandish and unbelievable. I liked the idea for example that patterns for 3D printed items have become Christmas gifts. Its small touches to the world-building like that really elevate a story.

Normally at this point in the review of a book I’ve really enjoyed, I would be talking about my hopes that it would make the jump from page to screen. No need in this particular instance.  A rummage around the internet reveals Netflix has already acquired the rights to The Upper World, and Daniel Kaluuya is attached to star. Presumably, he’ll play grown-up Esso. Sounds like ideal casting to me.

In conclusion, Femi Fadugba’s confident debut is well worth checking out. The science fiction blends effortlessly with the tense inner-city drama. Turns out the complexities of time travel mixed with the complexities of being a teen make for an enthralling drama. All of us have been in the situation at one point or another in our lives where we wish we could have a do-over. What if the possibility were real? The chance to revisit and potentially change your future. Nothing would stop you would it? Even if you had to wait years. The Upper World gives explores how we view our lives, how we understand the nature time and how it shapes who we are. If you are looking for thoughtful, reflective science fiction this is the book for you.

The Upper World is published by Penguin and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is going old school. The soundtrack to Kidulthood* by The Angel is a perfect fit. It has just the right vibe that captures the tone of the story perfectly.


*I can’t believe this album is fifteen years old. For me, 2006 feels like last week. I think I might now be classed as ancient. The sooner I discover the key to time travel the better.

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