Recently Melissa Wiley had a conversation with someone on Twitter (I’m too lazy to go back and find the exact conversation) about Connie Willis’s novel Doomsday Book and asked if there were other Willis titles she should catch. In response she got a goldmine of suggested titles.
I remembered reading and liking Doomsday Book a long time ago—probably shortly after its initial release in 1992—but as I remembered very few details, I decided maybe it was time to give it a re-read. And so I logged onto my library’s system and put a copy on hold. And while I was there I looked up several of the other titles that had been recommended and put them on hold as well. I arrived at the library a week later to find a stack of books waiting and I thought ruefully that perhaps the library’s on hold system should have a cutoff after 9 pm to prevent readers like me from getting overexcited and asking for more books that they can really read in two weeks. (In addition to all the Connie Willis novels, I’d also ordered three books by Seamus Heaney: his latest two volumes of poetry and his most recent prose anthology, Finders Keepers. (Thanks to Sally Thomas for including an excerpt from one of Heaney’s essays and reminding me how far behind I am on reading one of my favorite poets.)
I needn’t have worried about the size of my book stack, however. I raced through Doomsday Book, burning the midnight oil a couple of nights because it was just too good to put down. Even better than my vague memory had suggested. Most likely because I’m older now and better able to appreciate the subtleties of the time travel narrative, the digs at academia, and well, everything. What I’d remembered about the book was that it was about time travel and the plague. I’d forgotten the wonderful characterization, the suspense, and the beautiful parallel story lines. Oh and the character of the priest, Fr Roche, is one of my favorite literary priests.
After Doomsday Book I turned immediately to To Say Nothing of the Dog. This novel takes place in the same universe: Oxford University in the 21st century where historians travel back in time to observe the past. There are a few minor characters who inhabit both novels—I was excited to see Mr. Dunworthy once again. But the tone of the two books couldn’t be more different. Where Doomsday Book plumbs the depths of plague and death, isolation and faith in the Middle Ages, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a Victorian romp worthy of Wilde and Wodehouse, with hints of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. It was another kind of can’t put it down novel. And I lost several more nights of sleep staying up to read late into the night.
Finally, I plunged into Blackout in which Willis’ Oxford historians plunge into the frightening tumult of World War II. The plot is much more complicated as we follow three different historians researching three different aspects of the war. Polly is working as a shop girl in an Oxford Street department store in London spending her nights observing people in tube stations and other shelters during the terrifying air raids of the Blitz. Merope—renamed Eileen O’Reilly so she can pass as an Irish maid—is studying evacuees at a country manor. Mike Davis is journeying to Dover to interview soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk and the ordinary heroes, the small boat captains who risked life and limb to rescue them.
The historians begin as detached observers but soon find themselves caught up in the action. Worse, they find themselves stranded in the past, unable to return to 21st century Oxford as expected. Several Amazon reviews complained that Blackout was slow moving and uneventful. I don’t get it—guess they’re the type who prefer high explosive action to drama and suspense.
My only complaint was that the publishers evidently decided to split it into two. I got to the last page only to find a note that part two, All Clear is due out in Fall of 2010. Agonized screaming and pulling of hair. I’m just glad that I didn’t read Blackout earlier this year. My copy of All Clear is pre-ordered and should be here Oct 19.