Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 587
Year: 1992, this edn 2012
Buy: SF Masterworks edn
Source: Bought copy

Doomsday Book by Connie WillisReview
In the mid 21st century, Oxford students don’t just research the past, they live in it. Thanks to cutting edge time travel technology, students are now dropped into another period of history altogether, with minimal time and place slippage. Until 2054, the research has focused on trips to recent decades and centuries, or on unmanned drops, but the team at Brasenose College is ready to expand the net with a journey back to the Middle Ages – and never could a student, or guinea pig, be more eager than time traveller Kivrin. After months of research, Kivrin is ready to go back to Oxfordshire in 1320, a relatively harmless year in a century that the project ranks as a 10 out of 10 in risk. But historian Mr Dunworthy is adamant that Kivrin should not be allowed to go. Quite aside from the danger of fetching her safely home again, there are a multitude of ways in which this century could kill, not least of which is the Black Death which hit Oxfordshire hard at Christmas 1348. But that amount of slippage would be impossible, wouldn’t it?

The title itself is a giveaway that not all goes to plan and indeed Kivrin does find herself in a small Oxfordshire village at just the time she shouldn’t – December 1348. But Doomsday Book is not a novel to rush things. For much of the novel the reader knows more than the characters who seem to flounder like rats in an experiment. While Kivrin makes a life for herself in a medieval village, the team has more than enough to occupy it in the present – a devastating flu arrives in Oxford, striking down scholars, students, Christmas shoppers and revellers, the lot. Dunworthy is determined to rescue Kivrin but the odds are as stacked against them as they are against Kivrin. Earlier in the 21st century there had been a catastrophic pandemic. With disease now returned, it looks as if the 21st century could prove to be every bit as much a 10 as the 14th.

Doomsday Book is an extremely unusual novel, its blend of historical fiction and science fiction being one of the least unusual things about it. It could be almost two completely separate novels – one a deeply intense and moving account of a young woman’s exploration of medieval life and death and the other the completely bonkers story of a modern world gone mad. It is extremely hard to marry these two tales – and styles – together but, fortunately, it is never long before Connie Willis returns us to the 14th century where the book truly comes into its own.

The near-future world presented here is very old-fashioned. it was written in the 1990s but unlike other late 20th century science fiction, this book makes no attempt to foresee future technology beyond the mysterious time travelling device. As crisis upon crisis hits, Dunworthy and the others spend most of their time looking for phones and making phone calls. Never before has a book missed mobile phones as much as this one. To add to the mayhem, Brasenose College is playing host to a group of bellringers on a tour of England over the Christmas period. And then there’s a clinging mother with her nurse-obsessed son, a batty archaeologist, and, perhaps worst of all, Colin – a teenage boy of monstrous precociousness that I grew to loath intensely.

But aside from all the running around looking for phones, the most irritating aspect of the modern sections is the dialogue. It takes repetition and irrelevance to new levels. Also, there were times I thought the dialogue was intended to be amusing, but I could never quite tell.

Very little happens in the modern sections. People are constantly about to discover something vital but the crucial moment is usually ruined by another medical emergency. I wasn’t too keen on the rather obvious comparison between plague in the 21st century and plague in the 14th, especially as one is depicted so well and the other isn’t. There are a fair few flaws in the structure of these parts of the novel, especially towards the end, but all in all you get the sense that this long novel could have been halved in size if there had been a mobile phone to hand and the characters stopped repeating themselves.

But, taking a pause and having said all that, Doomsday Book is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in recent months. It’s a long novel but I read it in just two days, largely letting the irritations fly over me while allowing myself to be completely absorbed by what turns Doomsday Book into a very special book indeed – the depiction of Kivrin’s stay in the 14th century.

These medieval chapters couldn’t be more different or more spellbinding. The children Kivrin encounters, especially little Agnes, are a world away from Colin, and the dialogue and prose is wonderful and real. The people Kivrin meets have such power and authenticity. The priest Roche is an outstanding character and the way we learn about him through Kivrin’s experiences is crafted beautifully. Agnes is a delight. I can’t think of another child in a modern novel I’ve loved as much. She’s so real. And over time Kivrin herself is transformed in the most remarkable way. As she says at one point, despite it all she never would have wished not to have come.

And through Kivrin we learn about the details of life in a tiny medieval village – its daily rituals and chores, everyday items and clothes, beliefs and worship, language, marriage and love, the church and its servants, food and animals. It is quite simply stunning. The first two of the three books within the novel move very slowly, perfectly, familiarising us and Kivrin with this alien world, crucial for what is to come. When the third book begins, it hits like a brick and I was stunned. The last third of this book is incredible. How I cried.

What an odd novel Doomsday Book is. Irritating me one minute but mesmerising me the next. But all annoyances were compensated for by the meticulous and absorbing medieval sections and the absolutely superb Book 3, which wrung my heart out with its depiction of a small village in the merciless grip of the Black Death. I’m so glad I read it.


12 thoughts on “Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

  1. romeorites

    I loved the echoes and ties between past and future and to quote Colin it is an “apocalyptic” novel. I really want to read To Say Nothing Of The Dog, which I believe is set in WW2.

      1. romeorites

        I was thinking about this book the other day when in a conversation with my wife about the ebola crisis, it is frightening stuff. Wont be long before I re-visit it. Also Kivrin is a cool name. Great review.

      2. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

        Thank you so much! It’s certainly a topical book right now, not least because of all the apocalyptic novels being published. A good reminder that for many the apocalypse has already visited. Also fascinating for me as I’m an Oxfordian, so this brought it close. Kivrin is a great name. She certainly stands out.

  2. chronophlogiston

    Well, your review may actually convince me to go back and resume reading this book. Connie Willis’ time travel series has been well reviewed in general, but is just couldn’t control my irritation with that ridiculous fellow Dunworthy and all his fussing. Maybe we are too programmed by the quasi-military sorts who are usually put in charge of these things in the Hollywood movies, and who seems to be so much more heroic and decisive. Maybe I will follow your advice and just skim past the modern sections!

    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      I totally understand your frustration and felt it too, by the bucketload! If I were to read it again I would skim the modern sections. They add little to what makes the book so good. But you need the slow buildup of the medieval sections to get the full impact of book 3. Good luck if you give it another go!

      1. chronophlogiston

        Well at least you kept going because of your love of historical fiction. I don’t read that genre unless it’s in the guise of alternate history or time travel as in this case. I could read something like Michael Crichton’s Timeline because it was fast paced. Anyway there’s always so many other books waiting to be read that one doesn’t feel like investing too much in something that’s so hard to read and has irritating characters 🙂

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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