Completed 1/27/2014, Reviewed 1/28/2014
Connie Willis’ two books, “Blackout” and “All Clear”, are actually one novel, published in two volumes. Willis won the Hugo for both books, not as a tie, but as a single novel. So I am reviewing the two volumes in one review. These books bowled me over! I think this is the best >1000 page novel I’ve ever read, except for LOTR. I was dreading reading this because of the cumulative size. But after zooming through the first volume, I couldn’t wait to dive into second. “Blackout/All Clear” did for me with WWII that “The Doomsday Book” did with the calamity of the black plague. Willis’ attention to the details of daily life in desperate times created another experience that again left me near tears.
This story is another chapter in the adventures of the historians at
in the mid 21st century who have a device that lets them travel back
in time to study the past first hand. As
with her previous books, slippage happens, and the historians don’t get to
exactly the correct time they are traveling to. In this third entry in the Oxford
time travel series, several historians go back to World War II Britain. This time, the slippage is worse, and more
horribly, the historians appear to be stranded. Now
they must survive the bombs and try to find a way home, while terrified of the
possibility that their presence affect the outcome of the war.
This book may be the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read. Willis creates a tremendous amount of tension by weaving together the story lines of each of the historians in WWII. The lines are not only by location, but also by time. The action takes place in 1940-1941, 1944, 1945, 1995, and 2060. Through most of the book, you try to piece together how all these time and story lines are related. Almost every chapter ends in a revelation or a cliffhanger, almost always leaving me gasping, “OH NO!” or “OMG!” As the different pieces came together, I was breathless.
Willis does not write a lot of prose. Her character and plot development comes mostly from her characters conversations and thoughts. Willis is masterful at this. I developed deep feelings for each of the main characters. I think I most loved Eileen, who continually seems to be derailed by circumstance and her sense of duty.
I grew terribly fond of the supporting characters as well. They provide a lot of light humor in the midst of the tragedy that has befallen the main characters. My favorite supporting character was Sir Godfrey, an aging Shakespearean actor who begrudgingly helps put on free plays for the public with his acquaintances from the bomb shelter they shared. He’s witty, charming, and of course, always has a theatrical quote for every situation. Of course the other supporting characters are terribly British, and as we’ve come to expect in many comedies of manners, they always seem to be a little oblivious, focused more on odd details rather than the important issue at hand. It’s not nearly as funny as "To Say Nothing of the Dog", but it helps break up the tension of the main story lines.
Mostly, the supporting characters and their situations help you understand life in
during the Blitz. By reading this book, I
felt that I got to experience life in Britain during the war, and the
valor and spirit of the British people. Willis did a lot of research in writing this
novel, and many of the stories come from her interviews with people who
survived these times. That becomes
really evident in the day to day interactions between the historians and the “contemps”.
It provides a great understanding of the
concept of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
As much as I want to gush about this book, I do have to admit there are some flaws. There was one story line that didn’t grab me as much as all the others. That was of an historian working on a disinformation team. The team was anonymous, working with code names from Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It was a cute concept, but much of the patter between the characters was a bit dry. It picked up when they had specific missions, but it’s probably the only place in the two books where I found myself fading out. However, it was worth getting through those chapters, because how they came together with the other plot lines amazed me.
Another flaw was that the main character Polly spent a lot of time thinking the same thoughts over and over again. She was continually stressing about how she needed to hide her revelations of the historians’ plights from them and how they might have altered the outcome of the war as well as the lives of the contemps with whom they interacted. At times, it got a bit tiring. It felt like hashing and rehashing. Nonetheless, I loved Polly is a beautifully drawn character, and I loved her almost as much as Eileen.
While I felt the need to mention these flaws, they are a minor annoyance when compared to the experience of the novel as a whole. It’s incredibly fast-paced with intertwining plots, wonderful characters, and heart-wrenching twists. When I read a book I want to have an experience. I don’t have to cry over every book, but I love when I am emotionally moved as profoundly as I was with this. Between “Blackout/All Clear” and the “The Doomsday Book,” Connie Willis has provided me with two of the most moving experiences I’ve had in SF. Like “The Doomsday Book,” I give “Blackout/All Clear” five stars. (Note: although I’ve read and reviewed “The Doomsday Book” and "To Say Nothing of the Dog", I haven’t posted them yet. They will be coming soon!)