RSS Feed

Category Archives: Connie Willis

The joy of text: “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis (2018)

In previous posts I have written about Connie’s previous novels: Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the DogBlackout and All Clear.

Jim is in New York doing publicity for his  blog, Gone for Good,  (in which he apparently welcomes the disppearance of things  such as payphones and  VHS tapes). Taking a walk before his next interview, he runs across a second-hand bookstore called Ozymandias Books which  he ducks into to escape a downpour.

The inside was exactly what you’d expect: an old-fashioned wooden desk and behind it, ceiling-high shelves crammed  with books streching back  into the dimness. The store was only wide enough for a bookcase along each wall, one in the middle, and a space between just wide enough for a single customer to stand. If there’s been any customers. Which there weren’t. The only thing in the place besides the guy sitting hunched over the desk- presumably the owner – was a gray tiger cat curled up in one corner of it.

Jim cannot make sense of the way that the books are positioned on the sehelves which seems completely at random with no rhyme or reason. Then he notices a attractive  blonde young  woman  disappearing into the back of the shop, except there is  no back. He finds a door and cannor resist going through,  first  going up and then down into a vast room below street level  awash with books.

The blonde stood next to the carousel with a clip-board, supervising three burly workmen  in overalls who were scooping the books up and piling them onto big metal library carts. But not fast enough. They were working at top speed, but they still weren’t able to keep up. Books were piling up on the carousel adn beginning to fall over the edge. 

The woman is named Cassie and takes a Jim on a tour of  the  facility, which is neither  a bookstor nor a library, as Cassie is at  pains to  inform him

....libraries  are one of the biggest reasons we’re here…they destroy hundreds of thousands of books a year. They don’t call it  that, of course.  They call it ‘retiring books” or ‘pruning” or ‘culling’. Or ‘de-acquisition.’

The books are categorised  in different ways, from hoarders, attics,  garages, closed bookstores and libraries that have been  destroyed by fire or flood. Then there are sections  for  books left on beaches, dropped in the bathtub, torn up by a toddler, scribbled in etc..

Jim  thinks he has grasped what is going on.

It was an endangered -book archive, like those gorillasand elephant sanctuaries or those repositaries for rare type of seeds, to keep them from going extinct. And it was the scarcity of the book that determined its place here, not its collectible value or literary quaiity.

But  he hasn’t quite got it right.  Whereas we, the readers,  by now probably have.  You’ll need to read this novella  to find out for yourself, through.

Connie has written a paean of praise to books in all their scruffy, tattered, coffee-stained, dog-eared glory. Long may they continue.

Oh,  and the ending calls to mind  a short story by H G  Wells, The Door in the Wall.

 

Advertisements

“a fair field full of folk” Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

Doomsday Book is the first novel in  a series  set by Connie  in the same world  of time travel which I have discussed  in my previous  posts on the other novels,   To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear. Historians in the C21st travel back in time from the unit at the University of Oxford to research the past hand-on. In this case Kivrin Engle  is a student  historian,  keen to see the Middle Ages for herself, in  the  face of misgivings from  her boss Mr Dunworthy,

“Life expectancy in 1300 was thirty-eight years,” he had told her when she first said she wanted to go to the Middle Ages, “and you only lived that long if you survived cholera and smallpox and blood poisoning, and if you didn’t eat rotten meat or drink polluted water or get trampled by a horse. Or get burned at the stake for witchcraft…

“An unaccompanied women  was unheard of in the fourteenth century. Only women  of the lowest class went about alone, and they were fair game for any  men or beast who happened along. Women  of  the nobility and even the emerging middle class were constantly attended by their fathers or their husbands or servants, usually all three., and even of you wren’t a woman, you’re a student. The fourtheen century is far too dangerous for Medieval to consider sending a student.”

In the end Kivrin is sent back  by  the Medievalists to Oxfordshire in  1320, equipped with a cover story  of being a Lady who has been robbed and left on the road, abandoned by her servants.  No sooner has she departed than Oxford is beset  by a viral outbreak whose origins are unknown. Worse, the time travel operator  Badri becomes very ill  and it appears  that Kivrin may be lost in time as something  unexpected happened when she went through.

Back in the Middle Ages Kivrin  becomes very ill  on arrival but is taken in and nursed  by  a priest and local  gentry family:

I’m ill, Kivrin thought, and knew that the warm liquid had been a medicinal  potion of some kind , and that it had brought her fever down  a little. She was not lying on the ground after all, but in a bed in a room, and the woman who had hushed her and given her the liquid was there beside her. She could hear her breathing. …I must be in the village she thought. The redheaded man must have brought me here.

After her recovery she stays on with the family,  despite the suspicions of the  family matriarch, Imeyne. She adopts the name Katherine and makes friends with the village  priest, Father Roche, who comes to believe that she is   a saint,  sent  from heaven to earth to  help in a time of trial.

Back in Oxford Dunworthy is almost  totally preoccupied with the  deadly illness sweeping through the town which is now quarantined from the outside world.  Slowly he begins to make sense of  the  illness and its link with the past,  and of Kivrin’s plight and  the danger that threatens her. The question is : is it too late to  track her down and rescue her?

In this novel Connie paints a vivid picture through Kivrin’s eyes of the Middle Ages,  a world utterly unlike ours  in beliefs and mores and yet at the same time a place  where there is poverty, wealth,  greed,  jealousy, pride, snobbishness,  friendship, love and compassion, a world therefore very much like our own. Highly recommended.

Their Finest Years: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)

Blackout and All Clear are two in  a series of novels that Connie has written about “historians,”  researchers from the mid  C21st century who travel back in  time to carry  historical research, embedding themselves in the past.   This is a notion that  she first explored in a short story called Fire Watch (1983)  in which an historian joins the fire watch protecting St Paul’s during the Blitz.  She returned to the idea in Doomsday Book (1993) in which  Kivrin Engel  travels  back from 2054  to England in 1320 with unforeseen consequences in both times. This was followed  by To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998),  set in the Edwardian period and in Coventry during the destruction of the Cathedral on 14th November 1940. I have written about this  here.

In Blackout, and its direct sequel All Clear,   Connie takes us  back to  the Second World War again. Three historians travel back from 2060 to 1940: Mike, masquerading as an American reporter,   who is meant  to go to Dover to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk.  but instead finds himself  on a rickety boat on its way to pick up soldiers from the beaches;   Merope (who takes the name Eileen), masquerading as a servant in Lady Denewell’s  country house in Warwickshire which has taken in child  evacuees from London; and Polly, who ends up working in a department store  on Oxford Street. All three discover that the time travel technology meant to take them back home (“the drops”) has stopped working.

After a whole series of near misses, they eventually  meet up in London as the Blitz begins. But now they face some  dreadful questions. Are they trapped in the past forever? Will they survive the Blitz? And, worst of all,  have their actions, even the tiniest, most  inconsequential ones, let alone rescuing  someone during  a bombing raid,  changed the course of history? Will the Germans in fact win the war?

Connie sketches an unforgettable picture  of London as the bombs fall night after the night  from September 1940 to May 1941. There are vivid scenes in the air raid shelters and Tube stations,  as well on the streets and in the shops and cafes as somehow Londoners keep going, despite everything.

There is loss and  tragedy,  but there is also a great  deal  of humour, much of it  provided by Alf and Binnie,  two  children evacuated  from the East End  – possibly the naughtiest children in the universe –   whom Eileen looks after. A host of other characters make their entrances and their exits ;  the vicar in Warwickshire who befriends Eileen;  Mrs Ricket, Polly’s  sourfaced landlady;  Mr Humphreys, a fire warden at St Paul’s;   Mr Dunworthy, head of the time travel department; Godfrey Kingsman, an ageing  Shakespearean actor who befriends Polly,  Alan Turing, the  decoding genius and Agatha Christie, the crime novelist.   In addition there is a sub-plot featuring Mary Kent,  who works in civil defence  during the V1 and V2 attacks in the summer of 1944, and  who is not whom she seems. And a significant role is played by Holman Hunt’s painting ” The Light of the World” in St Paul’s. Finally, there is Colin Templar’s quest.

At the end of of All Clear the myriad plot lines,  coincidences, confusions and mysteries  are  neatly  resolved and yet,  after  1400 pages,  you are still  reluctant  to say goodbye to the characters whose lives and experiences  you have shared so fully.  Let’s leave the last word to Eileen on VE day when she meets the vicar again in Trafalgar Square.

He beamed at her. ‘This is a wonderful night, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ she said,  looking around the crowd. She had wanted to come here, to see this, ever since she was a first-year student.  She’s been furious when she found out Mr Dunworthy had assigned it to someone else. 

But if she’d come then, she would never have properly appreciated it. She’s have seen the happy crowds and the Union Jacks and the bonfires, but she’d have had no idea of what it meant to see the lights on after years of navigating in the dark, what it meant to look up at an approaching plane without fear, to hear church bells after years of air-raid sirens.She’d have had no idea of the years of rationing and shabby clothes  and fear that lay behind the smiles and the cheering, no idea of what it had cost to bring this day to pass – the lives of all those soldiers and sailors and airmen  and civilians. …She’d have had no idea what this meant to Lady Denewell, who’d lost her husband and her only son, or to Mr Humphreys and the rest of the fire watch who’d worked so hard to save St Paul’s…

I was born ten years after  the war,  and yet I  found  these  these novels very moving. Read them. Your life will be enriched.

 

 

 

To say nothing of the cat: “To Say Nothing of the Dog Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last “by Connie Willis (1998)

Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2067. In this era historian isn’t  someone who spends 20 years producing a monograph on late Phoenician trading patterns which sells 63 copies, earns a luke-warm review in the Times Literary Supplement and is remaindered  within six months. In this era historians are travellers sent back on time trips (or “drops” as they call them) to carry out detailed reconnaisance  and research  on past historical eras and events. Too many drops, though, can give you time-lag, a euphoric state akin to being high.

Coventry Cathedral before the bombing raid

The time travel technology is known as “the net,”  invented by a couple of chancers who hoped to ransack history for priceless artifacts but then discovered that objects from the past cannot be transported through time, only humans can travel back and forth (or so it’s thought). Ned and his fellow historians are working on a multi-million project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it destroyed in a Luftwaffe bombing raid on 14th November 1940, Oddly it’s not being built in Coventry,  but in Oxford. The project  is the brain child of Lady Schrapnell, whom I imagine as  a cross between Lady Bracknell and Mrs Thatcher. She is not be brooked over the slightest  minute detail.

 

The story begins with Ned poking around the ruins of the Cathedral days after the raid,   trying to locate the bishop’s bird stump, a hideous Victorian flower ornament which has vanished –  and which Lady Schrapnell has insisted must be found. Unable to locate it he returns to Oxford where he meets  fellow historian Verity Kindle,  who has been infiltrated into the Mering family at Muchings End in Oxfordshire in  June 1888.

a Victorian bird stump

At this point a cat enters the story, Princess Arjumand,  who belongs to Tossie Mering, spoilt daughter of the family with a penchant for babytalk. Somehow the cat returns with Verity to 2067 after she rescues it from drowning.  It is imperative that  Princess Arjumand must be returned to 1888  to close the incongruity. (Ned has fallen instantly in love with Verity, by the way).

Ned is also sent back to  June 1888 and falls in with  a Balliol  undergraduate  Terence St Trewes (who has  an annoying habit of quoting Tennyson at every turn), his bulldog Cyril  and Professor Peddick. Terence is in love with Tossi Meringe,  and  thus the three men and the dog set off  on a boat trip along the Thames to Muchings End with many mishaps on the way. If  you  are thinking that this sounds rather familiar, you would be right. Ned and his party actually pass Jerome K Jerome  and his party on the journey which becomes the book  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), published the following year.

Arriving at Muchings End,  Ned discovers Priness Arnjumand in his luggage, alive  and well, and meets Verity again who has returned from Oxford.  They now become embroiled in a series of increasingly farcical  events which involve returning the cat to Tossie and stopping  her marrying Terence, which will cause another incongruity as they know from her diaries that she married a mysterious “Mr C” after meeting him on a visit to Coventry Cathedral.  It was Tossie’s diaries, read by her  descendant Lady Schrapnell,  that inspired the Coventry Cathdral project.  A change in history could be catastrophic.

What follows are  nightime assignations, deceptions, impersonations,  coincidences, manipulations  and seances with Madame Iritosky – to say nothing of  Cyril and Princess Arjumand. And  there is still  the question of what happened to the bishop’s bird stump.  At one point  a drop lands Ned and Verity  in  the Cathedral  on the night of 14th November as it  is being bombed;  they barely escape with their lives.

Coventry Cathedral after the bombing raid

It felt like a direct hit. The blast rocked the cathedral and lit it  with with a blinding white light. I staggered off my knees, and then stopped, staring across the nave. The force had  knocked the cathedral momentarily clear of smoke, and in the garish afterlight  I could see everything; the statue above the pulpit engulfed in flames, its hand raised like a drowning man’s; the stalls in the children’s chapel, their irreplaceable misereres  burning with a queer  yellow light; the altar in the Cappers’ Chapel. And the parclose screen in the Smith’s Chapel….

I flung myself through the door and through the tower door and up the firelit stairs, wondering what I was going to say to Lady Schrapnell. In that one bright bomb-lit instant I has seen everything: the brasses on the wall, the polished eagle on the lectern , the blackening pillars. And in the north-side the empty wrought-iron flower stand. 

It had been removed for safekeeping after all. Or donated as scrap. Or sold at a jumble sale.

“Ned”! Verity shouted. “Hurry! The net’s opening!”

Lady Schrapnell had been wrong.The bishop’s bird stump was not there.

As the novel’s  full title suggests,  in the end the mystery is solved.

This is a hugely  enjoyable and entertaining novel which frankly came as a welcome relief after some recent science fiction novels  I have read,  whose plots  – involving  artificial intelligence and  jumps across the universe etc  –  seemed  humourless  and gave me a headache. We need more novels like this.