Reading: Connie Willis

Many years ago I was knocked out by Doomsday Book, Connie Willis’s novel of time travel to the dark days of the Black Plague. But then I tried another of her books, found it disappointingly shallow, and gave up on her.

This month I decided to give her another shot. I borrowed To Say Nothing of the Dog from the library, rolled up my metaphorical pant legs, and waded in.

Imagine a Victorian sitcom. Imagine Lucy and Ethel wandering around in Victorian England, trying to fix up a mixup that just gets worse and worse.

The history department at Oxford is using a time machine to travel back from 2057 to 1940 in order to do a blazingly trivial bit of research (the whereabouts of a spectacularly ugly vase that vanished during the Nazi bombing of Coventry Cathedral). But there are complications, so the narrator takes a detour to 1888 in order to return a cat that had impulsively been rescued from drowning by another time traveler, thus creating a dangerous time travel paradox.

He shortly finds himself traveling down the Thames by boat, with two other men and a bulldog named Cyril. Not only are there overt references to a comic novel of the period called Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome, our boating party actually sees Jerome, in another boat, as they’re on their jaunt. And then their boat capsizes, and so forth. (The line above about wading in was not coincidental.)

Changing the past (by rescuing a cat from drowning, for instance) could potentially cause the space-time continuum to collapse. And if that happens, the whole universe could fold up like a house of cards. So the narrator goes dashing around the countryside, trying to prevent the wrong Victorian young people from marrying one another, because they wouldn’t have met and fallen in love if the cat hadn’t been … oh, it’s too complicated. I’m not even going to try to explain it. There’s a lot in it about Napoleon and Hitler and expensive imported goldfish.

The story line is as densely packed as the knicknacks in a Victorian drawing-room. We meet an Oxford professor who’s fond of quoting Herodotus (in Latin, of course), a young man who’s even more fond of quoting Tennyson, and a bogus medium who holds seances (a popular Victorian pastime). About halfway through the book, references to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers start popping up right and left, though they belong to a later generation.

In the end, of course, we learn that the butler did it. What exactly the butler did, I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

I would have given up on the book a couple of times, it was such heavy sledding, except that now and again I found myself laughing out loud. That has to be a good thing.

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