I mince no words about my love for Connie Willis’ writing. Ever since I discovered her collection of short stories, Impossible Things, I’ve been an admirer of her prose. She has a remarkable way of drawing you into a story, and can write in a variety of forms, whether suspenseful drama or comedic slapdash. Doomsday Book clearly falls into the former category, but another of her Oxford time traveling historians books, To Say Nothing of the Dog, is firmly rooted in the latter. I’ve read this book before, but as it had been a long time and I needed something quick to download for more work commute, I decided to revisit an old friend. It was every bit as delightful as I remembered.
First, my usual comments about audiobook readers. A good reader is a true voice actor, who can take on the numerous roles within a volume and bring each to life with their own unique flavor. Steven Crossley was the narrator this time, and does a completely stellar job at nailing the book. Maybe its the British accent – important when you’re reading a book set in England in (mostly) the Victorian era – or maybe its that I’ve come to associate similar such male voices with cross-gender performances due to the influence in my life of old Monty Python shows, but he manages to create realistic sounding women just as much as he does men. Definitely a voice actor worthy of listening to.
[Minor Spoilers Ahead… or Ahoy] The story, as the title implies, attempts to capture some of the amusement and whimsy of Jerome K. Jerome’s famous Victorian novel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), his own amusing tale of a two-week boating trip along the Thames. Not only is the theme strongly established from the title page, but the characters in Jerome’s novel make a brief appearance in the book as our time traveling historian, Ned Henry, travels down the Thames in his own boat with a newly made friend.
Much of the book revolves around his amusing clash with Victorian manners and spiritualism, with the usual dash of mistaken identities, lost treasures, slapstick comedy, and pets who become as much characters in the book as anyone else. We learn a great deal about the prediliction of Oxford professors to climb trees, argue about the causes of history, and attempt to push each other in the river. There are also discussions of various goldfish species that Colonel Mering collects, including his prized split-tailed nacreous ryunkin. With Ned suffering from time lag from his many trips to Oxford of the 1940’s to find the missing Bishop’s Birdstump – a hideous victorian flowerpot that supposedly changed the lives of Tossie Mering, who met her husband when she first viewed it at Coventry cathedral, and which disappeared sometime around the Nazi blitz of 1940 – well… the situation is complicated, complex, and insanely funny.
The book has all the hallmarks of her novels that I love. Strong characters each with their own goals, often at odds with our protagonists, thus leading to much conflict. Great plot that seems to go in wild directions, and yet somehow all slides together for a seamless conclusion. And amazing historical setting, which in this case is made all the more powerful by her tying the book to the previous one by Jerome K. Jerome and working to emulate that style, with more than a little success, yet still able to produce a novel that is thoroughly modern and readable. I’ve read many time travel books in my day, and no one ever comes close to the way Ms. Willis can make you feel as though you are experiencing the time period in question, whether its the period of the black death in England in the 14th century, or the experience of Londoners during the blitz. And now of course, the lives of Victorian Englanders, still many years out from the two world wars that they will face.
On the Reynolds Wrap scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is “so bad they had to pull the product and bury it in a landfill,” and 10 is “biggest blockbuster of all time”, I have to go with a 10, 10, always a 10. If you love science fiction, enjoy time travel, find the Victorian period interesting and simultaneously puzzling, enjoy comedy… well this book has something for just about every one, even fans of mystery novels. Read it now!