Tuesday, November 9

Doomsday Book - Connie Willis

Kivren is a third year Medieval History student at Oxford – despite the dangers of the era, she’s well prepared for her field trip to the fourteenth century – armed with several period languages, a multitude of vaccinations, a plausible story, and a recording device implanted in her wrist for note-taking, she’s ready to gather data. Despite the concerns of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, Kivren is excited, secure in the knowledge that the net doesn’t allow paradoxes, that Badri is one of the university’s best techs and has calculated the date of the drop to within days, and that she’s arriving decades before the advent of the Black Death.
Dunworthy can’t shake his conviction that something will go wrong, heightened by the absence of Basingame, the Head of History – fishing and uncontactable somewhere in Scotland – and the actions of acting Head Gilchrist. Dunworthy believes Gilchrist to be reckless, a position confirmed by his removal of a ten ranking for the Middle Ages, replacing it with a far less dangerous six.
Gilchrist has rammed Kevrin’s preparation into next to no time, and has no awareness of the potential hazards Dunworthy’s student faces. When Badri comes to him after the drop, anxious and almost incoherent, his doubts are confirmed. But when Badri collapses, he not only can’t confirm that there was a problem, he’s also the index case in a pandemic that causes Oxford and its environs to be snapped into quarantine – after the dread Pandemic that killed millions, the populace is particularly sensitive to risk. Gilchrist responds to the hysterical, unfounded concerns of protestors that the virus has come from the Middle Ages, a scientific impossibility, by shutting down the net, potentially stranding Kivren in the past, a past more dangerous than she prepared for.
Doomsday Book is the first in this academic time travel universe, and it is spectacular. The hardback version clocks in at almost six hundred pages that fled faster than a novella, in no small part to Willis’s beautifully conveyed sense of urgency in both the (future) present and the past. The sections with Dunworthy, particularly, capture the feeling of urgent anxiety dreams; people and circumstances conspire to delay him, while Kivren misses several planned rendezvous thanks to illness, both hers and those of the family who take her in.
The writing is not only absorbing but intelligent – Willis allows the reader to piece clues together, without ever explicitly explaining why the foolproof net deposited Kivren in a far more dangerous time than intended. Her adjustment to the aspects of the Middle Ages that she could not have prepared for are realistically and deftly portrayed, and she has a gift for unobtrusively weaving facts in to the text. There are no lumps of exposition anywhere, so information about, for example, the previous Pandemic, is gleaned through passing reference – nobody needs to explain it, because all the characters are well aware of the details.
There are a multitude of sub-plots, from the knee-jerk superstitious reactions of British secessionists, and an overly protective mother, her strapping and swathe-cutting son, to an influx of American bell ringers, willfully unable to see higher priorities than their scheduled performances. And through it all is the awareness of the reader, which comes only slowly to Kivren, that she’s not in the comparative safety of the early thirteen hundreds but instead at the centre of a sweeping disease that will kill a third of Europe’s world population.
I first read Doomsday Book about a decade ago, and it was with delight that I re-read it. Although an outline of the plot, including the contemporary virus’s origins, stayed with me, this only added to my enjoyment of the text, heightening the suspense and deepening the sense of urgency so beautifully imbued in the novel. Willis has created a wholly unique universe, rooted in academia and able to move in a multitude of directions. I’ve previously reviewed To Say Nothing of the Dog, also set here, and will soon review the first in a two-part story partially set in London during World War II, Blackout. – Alex
For Lynn’s review of Doomsday Book, click here.

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