Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Doomsday Book [1992]

I'll come right out and say it: Connie Willis is my favorite author and this is not the first time I've read The Doomsday Book (1992). The first time was sometime in the late 90s, after I was introduced to her work by randomly picking up a hardcover edition of To Say Nothing of the Dog in Sam Weller's. I never looked back, devouring everything of hers that I came across (with the exception of Blackout and All Clear, which are waiting patiently for me to get around to them). The Doomsday Book is set among the same time-travelling Oxford-based historians and comes a little bit earlier in the timeline than To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's hard to believe that it's been almost twenty years since it was published!

Kivrin Engle is on the brink of becoming the first historian to be sent back in time to the middle ages, and her mentor James Dunworthy is not remotely happy about it. The acting head of the History department is determined to get her to 1320 before his authority is revoked, and therefore hasn't pursued proper safety precautions. Kivrin, who is eager to experience life in medieval England, blithely departs anyway, at which point everything goes awry. Hours after her departure, those in 2055 Oxford are struck down by a mysterious virus that prevents Dunworthy from finding out where and, more importantly, when Kivrin has landed. The narrative is divided between his "current day" struggles to make sure she's all right and Kivrin's experience in the past.

When she arrives, Kivrin also falls ill and is taken to a nearby manor house to recover. As she becomes familiar with the language and the "contemps" of the village she is taken to, she gradually falls into the pattern of daily life. Although she makes regular "reports" to a recorder implant, she loses her distance from her subject matter, coming to care for the family that nurses her back to health, especially the children. But there are times when she is also forcibly reminded that she doesn't belong:
It's already happened, Kivrin thought wonderingly. The verdict is already in and Lord Guillaume's come home and found out about Gawyn and Eliwys. Rosemund's already been handed over to Sir Bloet. And Agnes has grown up and married and died in childbirth, or of blood poisoning, or cholera, or pneumonia. They've all died, she thought, and couldn't make herself believe it. They've all been dead over seven hundred years. [241]
Meanwhile, Mr. Dunworthy and his assistant Finch try valiantly to find someone to operate "the net" and locate Kivrin in the midst of sickness and quarantine, protesters, a group of American bell-ringers, a boy who snuck in to the quarantine area because he thought it would be interesting, an archaeological dig, bureaucratic red tape, and the Christmas season. The intertwined narrative is beautifully crafted and moving, bringing me to tears every time I read it.

Grade: A

The Doomsday Book isn't easily categorized into one genre. It's got time travel, sure, and I read it as part of the "Women of Science Fiction" book club. But it's also historical fiction and, perhaps unexpectedly, a thriller. The reader is aware from the outset that Kivrin is likely in terrible danger, even as she innocently believes she's been sent to 1320. The revelation that she's been sent (SPOILER ALERT) to 1348 and the horror of the Black Death hangs over the narrative for almost three hundred pages before finally being confirmed. Willis takes the time to build sympathetic characters (in both time periods) that we become attached to, even though we have a nagging suspicion that many of them may end up dead.

The novel also features many classic Connie Willis elements, including a Christmas setting, picketers and ridiculous signs ("Do Not Have A Relapse"), a running screwball comic thread featuring Finch and the bell-ringers that keeps the drama from becoming overwhelming, a text stuffed with historical details, and a large cast of characters, many of them flawed. There are any number of people who can only see the world through their particular obsessions, including Dunworthy.

Willis also explores the greater question of responsibility and blame: who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Black Death? Who is to blame for getting Kivrin lost in the past? Is there a God? If so, how could that god allow so many people to suffer so horribly? Coupled with this is a continuing thread that explores expectations (given as statistics and probabilities by those studying the past) versus the realities of everyday life and human experience.

Random Thoughts:

My second trip through The Doomsday Book was actually via audio cassette, and it's amazing how some passages came back to me in the voice of the narrator, even though it's been years.

Had I but world enough and time, I would read Willis's short story "Fire Watch," the first of the Oxford Time Travel stories, followed by To Say Nothing of the Dog and then Blackout and All Clear to complete the cycle. It's a goal.

Dead Mother: Yes
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