Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Publication date: 1992 (1st edition)
Paperback: 592 pages
For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin — barely of age herself — finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone (but part of a larger series that follows a group of historians belonging to the University of Oxford’s time travelling program.)
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: A few weeks ago, I read my first Connie Willis’ novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog and I LOVED it. When I reviewed it, I asked our readers which CW’s novel I should read next and 99% recommended Doomsday Book.
Dear readers of this blog:
I write this review from a Place of Sorrow where I have been here ever since finishing this book last week. In this Place, I grieve for the characters in this book and what they went through as this might well be one of the saddest books I ever read and I can’t stop thinking about them. WOE. But I also feel sorry for myself because I now have read one of the best books I ever read and I will never read it for the first time ever again. It is the strangest feeling this, because it is sorrow of course, but the kind of sorrow that is almost happiness and I am sure it is the sort of feeling that seasoned readers will know and recognise – and even welcome – because it is the feeling that comes from knowing that a good book, an excellent book has been read, enjoyed and loved and closing its pages is like saying au revoir to a good friend.
And I would never have had this experience or known about this book had it not been for some of you, who so excitedly recommended it to me a few weeks ago, after I reviewed (and loved) To Say Nothing of the Dog (another book by this same author who is now on auto-buy).
Dear readers of this blog who recommended this book to me: thank you.
Kivrin Engle is a young historian attached to the University of Oxford’s time travelling program, in the middle of the 21st century. She has a passion for the Middle Ages and has been trying to study the period in loco for a long time but to no avail. The Middle Ages, especially the 14th century, has been closed to time travellers after being scored the highest possible score (a 10) in the scale of Centuries One Must Not Visit due to dangerous things like violence against women and diseases like the Plague. But the acting head of the Medieval Department has succeeded in circumventing the reasoning behind the No Access rule and after a lot of preparation which includes exhaustive Middle-English language lessons; vaccinations against all possible diseases; as well as cultural and religious coaching, Kivrin is ready to live her dream. Her drop is to be in 1320 (a year that is somewhat safe, and way before the year when the Plague started in 1348), around Christmas time and her trip to the past should last for two weeks, when the net will open again for her return.
Her tutor and friend, Professor Dunworthy, however, is not fully convinced that she’s been prepared enough and thinks that a number of things could go wrong. Furthermore, he believes that the acting head of Medieval is a fool who has not taken all the precautions when preparing for her drop. And things do go wrong but perhaps not in the way that Dunworthy expected. As soon as Kivrin is sent to the past and before they could get a final confirmation WHERE she was sent to, the technician in charge of the getting her fix in time, falls ill – incredibly ill. In a matter of hours a lot of other people have fallen sick, Oxford has been quarantined, the lab closed. Dunworthy is now convinced that something has gone awry, worried sick that the drop is wrong, that Kivrin is in danger, that they must do something to try and get Kivrin back but how can he do it when everybody working on Kivrin’s drop has been affected one way or another by the epidemic?
Meanwhile in the past, Kivrin, in spite of her inoculations, finds herself equally ill at the very moment of her drop in the middle of a forest. She is rescued by a passing man who takes her to a nearby manor where she is tended back to health by the residing family. Her foremost worry is to find out the exact location of her drop so she can make her way back in two weeks time, but her sickness prevents her from doing so at first. And then, the truth of her circumstances hits Kivrin like the force of a thousand storms.
The story progresses in a crescendo of tension both in the future and in the past as the events not only escalate but also almost mirror each other. And it is in this mirroring that Connie Willis works her magic and shows us a story about what it means to be human regardless of a small detail like placement in time.
Just like in To Say Nothing of the Dog, the historians within the novel are armed with facts, archaeological evidence and theories which they believe are as close to the truth as it can be. The time travelling (and can I just open a bracket here to say how much I love the rules that Connie Willis has created for her time travelling? I especially like when rules are kept and make sense) is only but an attempt to prove these theories and see for themselves what they believe they already know. Of course, all of this is put to test when they are actually visiting the time they are studying. Needless to say, nothing is really how Kivrin expected it to be and her experience in the past is one that is both exciting and extremely heartbreaking as she becomes friends and forms connections with the people she is living with for that short period of time.
The central idea, the one that hit home with me is that elemental one where there is no single, simple, unified human experience organised per century, clinically divided by blocks, separating us in time. There is no such thing as say, a customised Medieval Person curbed by their cultural, social and religious beliefs, shaped into something so alien as to be unrecognisable to us. In the beginning of the book, the historians say that people in the Medieval times had a different way of dealing with death and therefore did not feel grief as much as “us”. People are people, always and forever. This is what Kivrin comes to realise – that no matter when you are, people grieve, suffer, love, hope. Of course, cultural confines do exist, but I dare say that human nature goes far beyond that. Yes, for example, religion was a larger presence in the daily life of people in medieval times, but the experience of religion is lived differently by different people (there is no era riper with heresy than the late medieval period) and this is beautifully executed in this book. And it is this varied way of experiencing things that actually connects us all through time – in the myriad of possible human emotions and actions and reactions. The characters in the book, no matter in which century they are in, are recognisable in their humanity and variety and this is something that Kivrin has to deal with for better or worse.
They are memorable too. Agnes, Rosemund, Father Roche, Mary, Colin. And I cried for every single one of them, at different times for one reason or another, because as I said, this is one of the saddest books I ever read. But not a sad book in an exploitative, empty manner – there is beauty in this sadness because it comes steeped in friendship, loyalty, dedication, heroism and love. I feel that this review is wholly inadequate because there is so much that is good about it and I am finding it hard to convey just how awesome it is. This is a truly unforgettable book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: You will not understand why until you read it, but this part broke my heart – it was when I went from silently crying to sobbing out loud.
I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.
Rating: 10 – A Totally Awesome Book
Reading Next: The Waste Lands (Dark Tower 3) by Stephen King.