Oxford historian Ned Henry is exhausted from his hunt for the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian-era vase that once stood in front of the Coventry Cathedral pulpit. The indestructible chunk of garishly ornate metal vanished during the blitz bombing that destroyed the cathedral, and terrifying Lady Schrapnell (spear-heading the reconstruction) is relentless. After all, the stump united Lady Schrapnell’s great, great, great, great-grandparents.
Travelling between the mid-21st century and the 1940’s, drops close to but just missing the bombing, Ned is time-lagged. He really shouldn’t drop again, but his colleague, Verity Kindle, has made a mistake in her era, and brought something back with her – which is supposed to be impossible. Ned has to travel back to 1888 and correct the mistake, which could otherwise alter the future. Unfortunately, because of the time-lag, he can’t really remember where he’s supposed to go, let alone what the mistake Verity made was.
Set in the same universe as Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tribute to Oxford and particularly to Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K Jerome. I enjoyed this book the first time I read it but, having read JKJ’s classic in the interim, found the reread considerably enhanced. The purposeful stylistic similarities – chapter headings, dogs, boating, a distressing incident with a swan, over-packing for a trip with a plethora of ludicrous objects (discovered while searching for something else), absent tins of pineapple – were a delight now that I can see them.
Other aspects common to rereading of a previously enjoyed book were also present, and it’s a tribute to Willis’s writing that knowing the identity of mysterious things added to my enjoyment of returning to her world. I remembered what the object Verity brought back was, which made Ned’s time-lagged confusion all the more amusing. I also remembered how the bishop’s bird stump figured into Tossie (the ancestor in question) meeting her husband, the enigmatic Mr C and this, too, increased my involvement while rereading the novel.
Willis has a light hand and a gift for characterisation. I don’t get jet-lagged, but Willis described the time-travel equivalent so well I perceived the world through Ned’s vaguely irritable disconnection. As in Doomsday Book, Willis also conveys a marvellous sense of that familiar experience, all too common in dreams particularly, of being in a tearing hurry on an urgent errand while being obstructed and thwarted on all sides – by stupid people, wilful inanimate objects, convention, and bossy individuals with different and implacable priorities.
Willis came to Jerome’s novel via Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel – I has clearly less attentive when I read it a hundred years ago, but reading Willis’s homage has made me decide to revisit that work, too. - Alex