Updated on April 5, 2018
8. ‘Doomsday Book’ by Connie Willis
Well, I might have been missing in action for a couple of weeks (my days have been eat, sleep, edit, repeat), but at last I am back with a book review! This time it’s Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, which I read for my monthly sci-fi and fantasy book club.
This book has one hell of a hook: it is about Kivrin, a student at Oxford in 2054, who is sent back in time (oh yes, the academics have invented time travel) to study life in the 1300s. However, at the moment she is sent back, something goes wrong, and she finds herself stranded 700 years before her time, a woman alone in medieval England, with modern knowledge and a desperate need to escape. I mean, right?
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite live up to the hype that concept creates, but I still found it pretty enjoyable. It got mixed reactions from the book group: it seems that some of the things I (and others) didn’t mind about it, irritated other people silly. The most noticeable thing, of course, is that this book is massive (my copy is nearly 600 pages), and you really do have to enjoy what you’re reading if it’s going to last that long.
The story moves back and forth between the 1300s and 2054. In the modern day, Kivrin’s mentor, Dunworthy, is rushing about trying to work out the problem with the time machine and rescue Kivrin, all whilst Oxford is in lockdown due to the mysterious outbreak of a severe flu-like disease. In the 1300s, Kivrin must work out how to find her way home (i.e. get back to the ‘drop’ where she will be picked up), whilst navigating the social complexities of medieval living. It’s a good idea to move between the two worlds, but Willis definitely spent too much time on the modern day, when the real heart of the story is clearly being back in time.
Essentially, this book needs a really good edit. There are too many scenes when characters nearly reveal important information to each other but then are distracted for one reason or another. Also, it’s fascinating to see how a writer imagines a future that includes time travel but not mobile phones or the internet. This book was first published in 1992, and almost the entirety of the modern-day storyline involves Dunworthy making countless phone calls in an attempt to track certain people down. Throw in mobile phones and there’s basically no story there.
But even though Doomsday Book has plenty that’s annoying about it, I still found it pleasant to read, and I got through it pretty quickly even though it’s a real chunker of a book. I liked Dunworthy, and I liked Kivrin and the relationships she formed with the ‘contemps’ in the 1300s. There was a ‘twist’ about three-quarters of the way through, which is when the book really got going. I’d seen it coming a mile off, and we should have got to it a lot sooner, but when it did come I thought the final section was powerful and action-packed enough that it gave the book a good payoff. (Although I would have liked a bit more, to find out what happens after the events of the book.)
All in all, I found myself immersed in the world of Doomsday Book, enough so that I didn’t want to stop reading, even when Dunworthy was making his fifteenth unanswered phone call to a fishing village in Scotland. There are some really nice meditations on religion – what it meant in the 1300s and what it means in the face of modern science – and a few interesting details of medieval life that contrast so starkly with our own (e.g. the contemps don’t understand germs and will gladly wrap an open wound in a dirty rag). If you just want to get your teeth into a beast of a book, you could certainly do worse than this one.
“I wasn’t prepared at all, and everything’s completely different from the way I thought it would be. But you were wrong about it’s not being like a fairy tale. Everywhere I look I see things from fairy tales.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy the book here.