Tuesday, May 31

All Clear – Connie Willis

Post-graduate Oxford historians Michael, Merope and Polly have travelled to 1940 to complete their research. They were prepared for contingencies, and were given a lot of background prior to their journeys, but being stuck wasn’t a possibility and of them had contemplated. As window after window fails to open the likelihood of them getting home becomes ever more remote, particularly as the dates of previous trips to the past approach – nobody can be in the same time twice. And Polly has a greater concern – even though it should be impossible, their presence seems to be altering events, potentially changing the outcome of the War and history itself.
Far less a sequel than the second part of an enormous story (the novels combines total almost 1,200 pages), All Clear picks up directly where Blackout left off. This is an ambitious and complex return to the universe first encountered in The Doomsday Book, and is characterised by many of the same trademarks, most notably a breathless, pervasive sense of urgency. In The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, the previous novels set in this universe, I found myself swept up in the emotion – Willis has an amazing ability to recreate that feeling so often encountered in dreams of being in a tearing hurry but beset on all sides by people and events seemingly intent on delay and derailment.
This time, however, perhaps because of the length of time over which it has to be sustained, I found myself becoming impatient with it. And instead had a far stronger feeling of irritation. That said, Willis does this time include a reason for it, though this itself opens the door to some interesting questions about inevitability, free will, self-correction, randomness and sentience.
There are several interwoven narratives, and the setting jumps from year to year, so the opening chapter set in “London – 26 October 1940” is followed by “London – 7 May 1945” and is then interspersed between “Bethnal Green – June 1944”, “Kent – April 1944” and “Golders Green – June 1944” among others. Combining this darting timeline with a host of character, including the historians adopting different personas, meant that I eventually gave up on trying to keep track and decided to be swept along by the story. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean I ended up missing some of the nuances and detail.
While I enjoyed Willis’ homage to Jerome K Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat in To Say Nothing of the Dog, I found the unexplained references to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in the 1944 scenes set in Kent irritating – as well as Earnest there’s an Algernon, a Chasuble, Gwendolyn, Moncrieff, Cess, Prism, Merriman and Lady Bracknell; though I originally enjoyed the allusion, after several encounters it was just irritating.
It may well be that this was explained in Blackout, but I read that perhaps the better part of a year ago, and though I was able to pick up enough of it for All Clear to make sense, there’s a lot of information to carry over. It would, perhaps, have been better for me to read the two parts back to back, or at least in close chronological proximity, but that didn’t happen. I appreciate that Willis wanted to include a myriad of detail about this clearly well researched era, as well as the several individual stories, and for the most part this paid off. But there were certainly times where I wanted some heavier editing.
There are several touches I very much enjoyed, primarily to do with the evacuated children – from Alf and Binnie Hodbin tearaways to a quote from a letter in 1940:

There are six evacuated children in our house. My wife and I hate them so much that we’ve decided to take away something for Christmas.
I also liked the ending, which was a little messier and organic than most fiction completions, and I look forward to the release of another novel set in this universe, which I very much enjoy. I just hope that, should Willis continue the series, she returns to the slightly more straightforward plots of the first novels. - Alex

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