Connie Willis has written a number of books in which time travel is real and where it is utilised by scholars from Oxford University in a present day which is not quite the one we know. These books are connected by a few characters but don’t have to be read in any order as they all deal with different eras and problems. My favourite, and the one I first read, is Doomsday Book where one woman travels back to the time of the Black Death (this book makes me cry every time I read it – it is a near perfect stand-alone novel), Blackout and All Clear which is really one book published in two volumes and features several people who become trapped in London during WW2 (I write about these books here) and Fire Watch which is a collection of stories including one long time travel story set in St Paul’s cathedral (and which I review here).
For my 1999 book in my 60 Books from 60 Years challenge for this year I chose to read the last of the time travel books by this author To Say Nothing of the Dog. The story is set in Victorian times and the author models much of the plot and the style of writing on Jerome K Jerome’s book Three Men in a Boat – you don’t have to have read that book to understand this story but if you have it certainly enhances your enjoyment and makes you realise how clever this author is.
In the present day a philanthropist is trying to rebuild the Coventry cathedral which was destroyed in the Blitz. The historians are kept busy time travelling to get full details of what it looked like just before it was destroyed and to find out what happened to the treasures within it. Ned Henry has been tasked with tracking down the Bishop’s Bird Stump on which sat a flower arrangement in the cathedral but it can’t be found in the present day and no one knows if it was in the cathedral on the night of the bombing. He has made so many trips through time that his brain has become foggy and when he is sent to recover in Victorian Oxford he can’t remember why he is there or what he has been sent to do. He ends up travelling up the Thames with two other men and a dog trying to recover his memory and find a missing cat.
The story is told brilliantly and the part of the book where Ned doesn’t know what is happening is very funny. Later in the story it becomes quite complicated about what can travel through time and what can’t as well as what happened to the artefacts from the cathedral – in the end I gave up trying to work out exactly what was happening and just enjoyed the story.
This is regarded as a science-fiction modern classic and there are excellent reasons for this. The story is cleverly plotted and the style is wonderfully funny in places. The author examines some quite deep issues about identity and how we see the past while letting our main characters fall in love. I am pleased that I have finally read the last book in this author’s collection of titles about time travel.