I don’t know how this book would appear to someone who has never read Connie Willis before. I recieved this for Christmas, But to someone who has read all of Willis’ solo writing, both novels and short stories, and some of her partnered books, it just appears tired. Willis covered the Blitz so movingly in her short stories “Fire Watch” and “Jack,” and is capable of creating books that can make you cry (“Doomsday Book”) or laugh (“To Say of the Dog” and “Bellwether”), but here manages to be neither moving nor amusing. There is such a host of characters at the beginning, that it’s hard to keep them straight. Eventually, we figure out that we are getting the viewpoints of three main characters, historians Polly, Elaine and Mike, all time traveling to WWII England for first person experiences: Polly as a shop clerk in London during the Blitz, Elaine as a maid in the N. of England to observe child evacuees from London, and Mike to Dover to observe ships returning from the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. But the characters are poorly drawn, and we never get a feel for them. They are just people who know what’s going to happen next, and worry incessantly about whether what they’ve done has changed history. It’s hard to illustrate how tiresome this gets without writing spoilers — suffice it to say that manic thoughts about “but if they’d done X, then that means that they would have missed Y, and then Z couldn’t have happened…” etc. etc. from all three characters gets first
boring, then downright annoying.
Then there’s also Willis’ blind spot
about telecommunications technology, which has plagued her writing from the
beginning, but without which characters would have no excuse for running
frantically from one place to another just missing each other and unable to get
messages to and from one another. The introductory action is supposed to take
place in the year 2060, but not only do people have to run around looking for
each other, at one point a character has to put down the receiver to see if
another character can come to the phone. A RECEIVER?!?!? In 2060? At least in
WWII England, the inability to connect makes some sense, but there’s still this
sense of everything being oddly frenetic and the characters acting illogically
all the time. Not what you’d expect from historians, especially ones approved to
go to such a dangerous place and time.
This book is also a major
disappointment in how little we care for the “contemps”. In “Doomsday Book,”
when bad things happened to the non-time travelling characters, it was
heart-wrenching. Here, it’s like “oh… the little girls you thought died in the
bombing last night are okay? That’s nice.” The book is just too emotionally
shallow for anything that happens to people to resonate.
there’s the fact that other reviewers have noted, that this and the book’s
“continuation,” “All Clear,” which will be published in the fall, were written
as one book, but the publisher decided to divide them into two books. So the
book just ends, awkwardly, and with no sense of any kind of resolution. There’s
no cliff-hanger, no closing of one chapter and tantalizing beginning of
another… it just ends.
I normally love Connie Willis, and this subject
matter is clearly near and dear to her heart, so I was expecting so much more.
It’s entertaining, and a little bit informative, but it could have and should
have been hugely moving and the publisher should have made Willis take out the
filler and keep it as one book. As it is, I doubt too many people will come back
for part 2.