Middle Age Crisis
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Well, maybe not.
Connie Willis’s classic The Doomsday Book was published in 1992. It’s a work of science fiction, but is written in a style that should appeal to historical fiction readers, literary fiction readers, or anyone who just loves immersing themselves in a great book. In the world Willis creates, travel back in time is possible, not to change history, but just to witness events. As the book opens just before Christmas, an Oxford student named Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. While a little bit of “slippage” is always possible, the target for her trip is in the 1320s. She’s going to observe the locals, then return to the rendezvous point a few weeks later where she’ll be returned to the present.
Kivrin’s adventure quickly goes awry. In the present day timeline, we see through the eyes of Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor who has objected to the trip’s high level of danger since its conception. The historians planning her trip aren’t entirely competent in his eyes and there is too much risk in a trip to an era where women were often the victims of violence, where superstition and accusations of witchcraft ran rampant, and where disease and accidents were common. He’s overruled, but his worries become very real when the technician who sent Kivrin back comes down with a mysterious illness before he can confirm the success of the drop.
Meanwhile, in the past, Kivrin’s immediately in trouble. She’s ill (which wasn’t supposed to be possible given the antivirals she received before the trip) and immediately loses the location of the rendezvous point when she is rescued by a somewhat mysterious middle ages family.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the problems escalate as plagues wreak havoc in both the past and alternate present timelines. Willis draws wonderful, sympathetic characters and includes a fair dose of comedy of manners as Dunworthy tries to cope with a missing department head, an undergraduate Lothario and his overbearing mother, a touring group of American bell ringers, and the unexpected visit of Colin, a fourteen-year old boy stranded by the outbreak.
Willis’s book is at turns funny and deeply poignant. Her history is spot on and very easy to believe. She takes her time with the pace: this isn’t a book for readers who want all plot and instant gratification. It’s for readers who like slow building suspense and deep characterizations. Willis uses the same theory of time travel to good effect in other adventures as well. To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) is a more comic book that involves a trip back to 1940 to gather details for a restoration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in German bombing runs. The duology Blackout and All Clear (2010) may be the best books ever written about life during the London Blitz. Seek out Willis for your book group, and get ready for armchair time travel adventures unlike any others.