Monday, August 8, 2016

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

I often have difficulty writing knowledgeably about writers and books that I love, without using words like "love" or being gushing and hyperbolic.  Jo Walton is such a writer.  But Connie Willis is the worst for me. I have no idea how to intelligently talk about her writing.

I don't remember the first time I read Doomsday Book.  It was most definitely something I checked out from a public library; in 1992, I was still an undergraduate at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas - so I'm going to guess it was from the Salina Public Library.  I don't ever remember owning a copy, so I doubt I bought it (although I did work at Waldenbooks in college, and I may have bought it and lent it to a friend, who never returned it).  I now own an electronic copy.    It was my introduction to Connie Willis.  I have yet to read all her novels and short stories, but I'm working my way through them.

I apparently last read Doomsday Book in 2008 (my goodreads review says I read it in 2004 as well).  That's too long to go between re-reads. I should do the audio version next. As with the other times I've read it - I'm going to guess five times total - this time I was instantly hooked and could not put it down for love or money.  I am always sad to finish a Connie Willis book; I want them to go on forever.

The plot of Doomsday Book twists and turns - and travels through time.  Willis is great at this.  This is a thriller at its heart, and a medical thriller at that, but very smart.  Willis has a style of writing that is clever and zesty, and joyous, and also keeps you on the edge of your seat, but not in a movie script or dumbed down way.  This isn't the kind of book for readers looking for low Lexile scores - in fact for any kind of Lexile score.  This is for readers who like writers who choose words carefully and deliberately, writers who use words and phrases as clues that will matter to the plot and characters later, writers whose plots are intricate and woven and whose characters are witty and smart, writers who build a story carefully and quietly, and solidly.  Connie Willis isn't for everyone.

Doomsday Book has two related plots, really, that twist and turn and eventually merge; one is set in the middle ages, the other set in the (near) future (which draws nearer and nearer as the book ages), connected by time traveling historians and their students from Oxford.   Set in different times, I can't remember first reading it and realizing, like Kivrin does, that she's stuck in the middle of the time of the Black Death and can't and doesn't know how to get home; it's as horrifying to read the fifth time as the first.  I read a review that called the story that called the story in the past more interesting than the story set in the near future, but I disagree.  I think part of Willis's brilliance and genius in all her time travel books is now she plays the future and past off of one another, sometimes contrasting, but more often than not smudging them up. Doomsday Book does this particularly well, and as the chapters switch from the Middle Ages to the Time Traveling Future, I'm always as interested and excited to be in one era as the other, because she's keeping you on the edge of your seat in each.  You know something awful is happening just behind the curtains in each plot, and you are waiting with bated breath for Willis to take you there.

There are some common themes that run through Willis - well, I don't know whether they are officially "themes" in a literary sense of Connie Willis or not - perhaps I will call them "the flavors" of Connie Willis.  Agatha Christie and the golden age of murder mysteries.  Screwball comedies and old Hollywood.  World War 2.  And Christmas.  Connie Willis loves to use Christmas as a setting. This reading of Doomsday Book, I thought to myself - She uses bells throughout the book - the bellringers from Colorado, the bells of Carfax Tower playing constant Christmas carols, the bells of the Middles Ages, Agnes single sleigh bell at the end.  And I thought, someone who loves Christmas as much as Connie Willis surely knows that "every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."  Kivrin, the angel of mercy, sent from the future to comfort the sick, the contrast between the village where they died in the street, and Kivrin, an angel sent from God to minister to the dying villagers.  That's pretty damn clever, Willis,  to have hidden that in there, at least for me, for 25 years and five readings.  That's why I love you.

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel #1)Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a hard time not gushing over a Connie Willis book, or overusing the word "love." I always sound like I have a bad case of cow eyes whenever I try to talk or write about Connie Willis. So bear with me please.

Doomsday Book is a medical thriller - although I don't want to spoil anything for those of you who haven't read it five times like I have, so I won't say exactly how - and it's also a time travel book. There are two connected plots that twist and turn, and gradually grow more and more exciting, but in a smart and witty and clever way rather than the Being-Hit-Over-the-Head-With-It sort of way. That's what I think Willis always does best and why I love her - the honoring of the gradual. She's in no hurry, and you shouldn't be either. Her books are meant to be savored, and Doomsday Book is no exception. She's a careful, deliberate writer, a master of her craft; words and phrases are complexly woven like embroidery thread, and they all mean something, so watch out: she loves sprinkling clues and their uglier sisters, red herrings. You can always tell Connie Willis literarily sat at Agatha Christie's knee even though they write completely different genres.

I'm always sad to finish a Willis novel, because there isn't more of it left. It's the kind of reading I want to go on forever. Closing the a Willis book is like that feeling you had as kid at 10:00 p.m. on the night of Christmas Day.

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