Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Rating 9.4/10
Some people have turkey for Christmas, I had the black death, and loved it!

A Recommended Book of the Month

Being Christmas, I decided to read a Christmas themed novel, and me being the decidedly morbid person that I am, I decided to celebrate the festive season with a novel all about plague and pestilence, but (more appropriately for Christmas), a story of courage, suffering and very human frailty, one of my lady's favourites.

Doomsday book begins in Oxford of 2054, a future in which historians do not just study the past, but use a time travelling device (rather confusingly for modern readers), known as "the net" to travel back in time to view the past directly. Professor James Dunworthy, a veteran of several trips to the twentieth century reluctantly sees his star pupil Kivrin Engle off to the year thirteen twenty, three hundred years earlier than anyone had previously travelled to study the Middle Ages, a point in time with which she's fascinated.

The story then shuttles back and forth between Kivrin's experiences in the fourteenth century, and modern Oxford where Dunworthy is convinced something has gone wrong with Kivrin's drop back in time, but all efforts to investigate the problem are hampered by an ever more serious outbreak of influenza.

Of course, as a Doctor Who fan I'm no stranger to time travel stories, and as the writer Steve Lyons has observed one of the most fascinating things about history from a storytelling perspective is that frequently previous centuries can be just as alien, incomprehensible and dangerous places to visit as any extra terrestrial planet. To begin with, this is very much the approach Willis takes with the fourteenth century. Despite all her preparation, even down to creating a cover story to explain why a young woman would be alone in a time when most women never went anywhere without servants and attendants, the culture and attitudes of the time are decidedly strange and, given an unfortunate accident when she arrives very threatening, especially after the paternal Dunworthy's dire warnings and fears for Kivrin's safety. Yet, even though Kivrin's experiences begin as confusing and strange, and Willis doesn't shy away from details such as the lack of sanitation and bad teeth prevalent in medieval society, slowly over the course of the book, Kivrin, and we with her begin to know and care about the people she meets, people who are just as real and recognizable as those of the far more familiar near future Oxford Kivrin leaves behind.

It is definitely in her character depictions that Willis excels, indeed she often reminded me of a modern day Dickens in the way she is able to draw characters who are both distinctly realistic and three dimensional, quirky and wryly amusing, whether in the thirteenth or twenty first century. This goes very much for the book's main protagonists, Kivrin Engle and James Dunworthy.

Kivrin walks that wonderfully fine line between being definitely out of her depth, and yet not being helpless either, also she is one of those rare things in a literary novel, someone who cares about the people around her but isn't an overly saintly cliché, a realistically good person we could imagine meeting on the street, yet someone we admire all the same, not the least I admit because she reminds me rather a lot of my lady.

Dunworthy likewise is a wonderfully human character, particularly with his occasional over protectiveness towards Kivrin and his host of dire, if not entirely unjustified fears of what might happen to her in the Middle Ages. Again however, Dunworthy is far more than just the standard concerned mentor figure, a person with a life very much of his own and someone we care about for himself, despite the fact that Doomsday Book is definitely Kivrin's story.

Willis also populates the book with a host of colourful and often pointed supporting players, from Dunworthy's ever optimistic and precocious ward Colin, to the obstructive and self important Gilcrest, (an academic of a sort I've unfortunately encountered rather too often myself). This is particularly noteworthy in the fourteenth century sections of the book, since Willis is able to transition beautifully from making the characters Kivrin meets oddly dressed people with slightly repellent habits and nearly incomprehensible speech, to truly human characters in their own right. From Agnes, a troublesome five year old child recognizable in any age, to her mother the kindly Eloise, the brash young Gawin and the shrewish Emaine. For the most part all of these supporting characters get time and distinction of their own, albeit I do wish we'd seen a little more of Eloise and her own personal conflict.

Connie Willis's style is careful, dry and often rather witty, particularly when pointing out characters various human foibles, I love the idea of Dunworthy buying Colin a gobstopper for Christmas described as "the size of a small asteroid"  This creates some beautiful symmetries across both time periods, especially when contrasting different practices such as Christmas celebrated in modern Oxford with synthetic carrels and multi denominational services, as opposed to the Latin mass and merry making of the Middle Ages. Willis also uses some quietly powerful on running motifs, the ringing of bells and attitudes towards death, illness and faith in God, and the changes and similarities of ways of life over time, motifs which she is a good enough writer to let us discover for ourselves rather than have to belabour.

One minor writing issue I did notice were a couple of Americanisms which occurred in modern day Oxford such as oatmeal instead of porridge, though these were certainly not frequent enough to be really jarring, and I definitely like the way Willis depicts English characters and situations in a decidedly English way, even down to writing some wonderfully over-the-top Americans as contrast.

While Doomsday book is certainly not a novel of the future, depicting video phones as just as unreliable as the phone service of the nineties when the book was written, there were a couple of issues which did need explanation. For example, early in the book it's explained that Kivrin learned medieval arts such as embroidery, fire making and weaving, and yet it's never made clear how. Mrs. Dark tells me in some other works set in the same universe Willis imagines a technology that can disseminate knowledge into the brain, but this is not made clear in Doomsday Book, and yet such technology does have potential possibilities, especially given how Willis treats the few instances of advanced technology we do see such as the chemical interpreter implanted in Kivrin's brain which helps her understand medieval English, albeit with a wonderfully realistic inexactness. Indeed, the way Willis has the medieval characters speak first in entirely incomprehensible middle English, then settles down to writing them with slightly archaic, still decidedly not modern  speech is masterful.

One thing I very much admire, is the way Willis treats Christianity and superstition, and even while admitting the inequities in medieval thinking, Willis represents religion as the subject of dignity, not the usual mix of tyranny, ignorance and corruption we'd expect (especially from a science fiction writer). Yet, Willis is no apologist, and she certainly doesn't shy away from admitting some of the less pleasant medieval practices such as arranged marriages between young girls and slightly unsavoury, if not actively vicious old men. This is why one of the most memorable characters is the priest, Father Roche, who is anything but the hellfire merchant stereotypical in depictions of the Middle Ages, and indeed has attitudes which are both very much medieval, and at the same time surprising in the best possible way.

The one serious issue I had with Doomsday Book is with it's pacing. Even though her character depiction is extremely good, the plot itself moves rather slowly. This is not a problem in the fourteenth century section, since the rich depiction and details of such an alien time were more than enough to keep my interest, but in some of the 21st century chapters despite missing heads of history, a student womaniser and his gloom laden over protective mother, single minded American bell ringers and a host of other entertaining characters, the actual direction and progress of the plot, and the conflicts Dunworthy has with university bureaucracy and missing data about Kivrin's jump were less than gripping, indeed frequently I found myself viewing the modern day chapters more like a set of short sketches interspersing the main play. Likely I wouldn't have minded as much if the modern day chapters were spread a little more evenly, however Willis's chapter placing was often rather random, for example though we see Kivrin leave for the fourteenth century in the first chapter, we don't actually catch up with her or even see things from her perspective until several chapters later.

It also didn't help that when, three quarters through the novel the 21st century portion does run into some serious circumstances, things are glossed over rather abruptly thanks to Dunworthy missing a considerable portion of the action, and though this did lead to some clever plot points and a simultaneous discovery both by Dunworthy and Kivrin, I do wish Dunworthy had been around for the crisis a little more.

Just over half way through, the book abruptly takes a decidedly heartbreaking turn as the black death strikes and we see Kivrin, with no modern medicines or much training caught in the centre of it. This is all the more gut wrenching for the fact that the people we see catch the disease, the pain, suffering and extremely graphic depictions of the symptoms (this one really isn't for the faint of heart), are people we've definitely come to care about, not just faceless props to shock with body horror. Even though Kivrin has been immunised, her struggle is not for herself, but those around her, and the pain she feels is very much sympathetic (also a way in which Kivrin is very much like my lady). Yet, Kivrin is not unrealistically saintly, and the way Willis teases out her increasing frustration and desperation here, with horror piling upon horror, Kivrin's reactions and the link between her historical knowledge and what she's seeing around her  is nothing short of amazing.

Doomsday Book is notable for having no real villains, though both the fourteenth and twenty first centuries have unpleasant characters, yet the conflict Kivrin has during the plague is probably one of the most shocking I've ever read, and for all her pacing issues, Willis's timing here is masterful conveying every second in painful detail, yet at the same time occasionally pulling back to give only Kivrin's recorded notes (the simple two word declaration when several characters die is chilling).

The book's ending when it comes is not as much a climax as an acknowledgement of what has happened, and though it leaves the book on a sombre note, the note it strikes is extremely poignant and highly moving. The only problem I have with the ending is I do wish Willis had given us an epilogue just to show Kivrin recovered from her experiences, since where the book ends I did wonder if Kivrin was permanently scarred. Apparently she is at least mentioned in other of Willis books as a notable historian, but given the rather subdued place the book ends, a little by way of hope that Kivrin had recovered, or some sort of acknowledgement by Kivrin of what had happened would've been welcome. I also would've liked to see a retrospective view from Kivrin after the fact, particularly given her often moving remembrances of the 21st century while in the fourteenth, it would've given the symmetry more of a feeling of closure. Then again, the fact that my major criticism of the book's ending is effectively "I wish there was more of it" should be telling.
 
One of the major reasons I read speculative fiction; possibly the major reason, is to see beauty in darkness. To see flawed, real and decent human beings up against vast, incomprehensible and alien situations and see them triumph. Doomsday Book is a book with no gigantic battles, no sweeping events, and very little by way of actual villains, a small, intimate story of a tiny medieval village, one traveller a long way from home, and her mentor's efforts to help her. Yet, it is one of the most truly compelling books I've read for a considerable time and one I wouldn't hesitate in recommending, despite it's pacing issues, and a book I will certainly be rereading in the future, since I have the strong suspicion that Doomsday Book has a lot to offer even the second time around, (my lady rereads it every few years). The book won the 1992 Hugo, Nebula and indeed Locus awards, and this is one instance where it definitely deserves the praise.

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