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Comedy of Manners and Time Travel

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Connie Willis has a unique twist on time travel: the “net” through which travelers access other times is self-correcting. Not only can one not travel to a time in which one has already lived, one cannot bring “through the net” anything that might cause an anachronistic incongruity. Crisis points are even more tightly controlled: no one can travel to Waterloo, for example, or get close to the grassy knoll.

So when in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Ned Henry is dragooned by Lady Shrapnell into traveling back in time to research the “bishop’s bird stump” at Coventry Cathedral just before it was destroyed in the Blitz, he is baffled by his inability to find it. Back and forth he goes, getting more and more time-lagged as he visits jumble sales (“maybe it was sold as a white elephant”), the bombed-out smoking remains of the cathedral (“That’s a cat! I thought it would be the size of a wolf, somehow…) and the peace and quiet of the Victorian age.

The last visit is necessary because somehow, a cat (extinct in 2067) has been brought forward through the net. Ned is volunteered to take it back, and somehow get Lady Shrapnell’s great-great-great-grandmother to visit Coventry so that she will write about the bishop’s bird stump in her diary, so Lady Shrapnell will be inspired to rebuild Coventry Cathedral and restore the bishop’s bird stump to its rightful place in history and the hearts of Englishmen.

Mr. Dunworthy and Finch, whom we met in The Doomsday Book, are back. They want to make sure the net stays open and history happens. Lady Shrapnell is determined to get the cathedral rebuilt on time, with the bishop’s bird stump, despite the laws of physics&#8212besides, “laws are made to be broken.” Professor Peddick wants to defeat his rival Overforce with his ideas of a “Grand Design” that “shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may.” Verity Kindle wants to make sure the cat she rescued isn’t drowned, “incongruity or not.” Ned just wants to get a full night’s sleep.

What transpires out of this nest of competing ambitions is a wonderful comedy of manners, with modern perspective applied with liberal amounts of humor and allusion. History is used as a sustaining structure seen by the participants in the way we note limbs, leaves and stems on a tree: as a confusing mass dimly perceived in detail, and really understood only as a gestalt “tree” (even while Lady Shrapnell reminds us that “God is in the details.” It is also an Agatha Christie-style mystery whose deftly-handled clues span 700 years of history.

I recommend it highly.

The title comes from a contemporary comedy of manners by Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). As part of the detail of Willis’ story, Ned Henry actually sees the author and his friends, to say nothing of the dog, punting down the Thames.

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About DrPat

  • Thank you for that link to Cleveland.com – it’s exciting to know that our reviews here are reaching an even broader audience.

    Nick, you may want to add your “best of 2005, so far” picks to the discussion here.

  • Nick Jones

    Right, I forgot about ILL – thanks for the reminder.

    And while I’m here, I’ll list the two best books I’ve read so far in 2005:

    Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens.
    The Fuck Up by Arthur Nersesian

  • Great review, DrPat. I love stories about time travel and history, and this sounds like a particularly good one. I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Ben Bova’s Orion series was one of my favorites growing up.

    This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Nick, you gotta get what you need – try ILL (Inter-Library Loan). It works!

  • Nick Jones

    Alas, my local library has only three of Willis’ books, Passage and the two DrPat mentioned. And right now my financial situation is so poor that I can’t even afford to declare bankruptcy. Guess I’ll have to be satisfied with was I can get for free.

  • I’d recommend Bellweather as well; in addition, there are two volumes of short stories worth an examination as well (she has a volume of “Christmas themed” sci fi tales that are highly enjoyable for the most part). I also agree: the books she co-authored aren’t worth much, but then I’m not a big one for writing teams.

  • Bill, there are some novels co-authored by Willis with Cynthia Felice that are not worth the shelf space (IMHO), but everything she writes on her own is enjoyable (and mind-stretching).

    This is probably the lightest and most enjoyable Willis novel there is (closely followed by Bellwether, I think). Enjoy, Nick!

  • Nick Jones

    After all the political and philosophical books I’ve been reading lately, this sounds like a good relaxing read. I’ve never heard of Connie Willis before, so I’ll have to check it out. Thanks, DrPat!

  • To Say Nothing of the Dog is a wonderful book. Almost anything you can get your hands on by Connie Willis is worth reading: she’s got a sly wit and a deft touch. Makes for a fun reading experience.