September 14, 2009
Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Some of you may have read Connie Willis's other time-travel novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and may subsequently have the impression that her books are just barrels of smart and witty laughs and giggles. Please allow me to correct this impression: Doomsday Book is smart and full of time-travelling Oxfordians, but humourous it is not. Beautiful, yes. Haunting, yes. Funny? Not so much.
I mean, come on. It's about the Black Plague.
Our story begins in Oxford in 2054 -- long after the great Pandemic that will soon strike us all, but not so long that it's been forgotten. Time travel exists, but isn't particularly glamourous; it's used primarily by historians wishing to do on-site research. Kivrin Engle is one such historian, and she has taught herself Latin masses and cow milking and Middle English in preparation for a two-week research stint in 1320. Her tutor, James Dunwoody, doesn't want her to go; the drop is being supervised by the incompetent Gilchrist, who hadn't even sent an unmanned probe to the 14th century before approving Kivrin's journey.
His worrying has no effect, however. Kivrin is sent back in time, and his own hands are soon full as a mysterious viral epidemic breaks out in Oxford. In the meantime, Kivrin has landed in the correct century, at more or less the correct place, and has been taken in by the family of Sir Guillaume D'Iverie: his wife, mother, and two young daughters.
Do I need to tell you that things go wrong? Things go very wrong -- wrong like there-goes-half-of-Europe wrong. The middle ages are brutal, but not as brutal as the plague that swept through them. [Aside: did you know that people still fall ill from bubonic plague? No joke. It's no picnic, I'm sure, but it's easily taken care of with antibiotics and such now. Still, can you imagine? "Uh, boss, I can't come in to work today ... yeah, I'm a bit sick ... bubonic plague, actually ... no, I'm serious, I have the plague ... hello? hello?" End of aside.]
A great strength of Doomsday Book is Willis's research, which must have been extensive and meticulous. The passages set in the middle ages are exquisitely realized. The filth and grit and vibrancy of the "contemps" are all there, and the picture that is painted of the way people actually lived is much more vivid and real than anything I've ever encountered in a history book, or even in much historical fiction. This works especially because the facts and facets of medieval life are inextricably grounded in the lives of the characters -- and history is about people, and stories, after all.
Of course, one of the great facets of medieval life was the Black Death, which swept through Europe first in the sixth century, and then in the fourteenth and for several centuries thereafter. It doesn't give away too much to tell you that plague happens in Doomsday Book, and that it's horrible. Have you ever really thought about what it's like when plague buboes burst? You will.
That being said, Doomsday Book is tragic but not entirely hopeless. The ending is bleak but strangely satisfying. You know, triumph of the human spirit, blah de blah de blah. It's pretty great.