by Connie Willis
Reviewed by ekt
Posted January 25, 2004
Also reviewed by Galen Strickland
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Doomsday Book is absolutely apocalyptic, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I started reading it around Christmas time, since that's when the book is set, over a period of a few weeks in, by turns, the mid-21st and 14th centuries. The reason for this setting is so that one of the dual central characters, Kivrin Engle, will be able to determine the rendezvous date to return to her own time. The contemps, you see, are rarely aware of what day it actually is, except during special occasions such as the Christmas-Epiphany season. (One can't be certain of the exact date they're sent to in advance, due to the limited predictability of temporal slippage.)
Kivrin is an historian, a student at Oxford, and she's going to the Middle Ages. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be allowed, but the Head of the History Faculty, Basingame, is on vacation, and the Acting Head, Mr. Gilchrist, has changed the century's rating, much to the dismay of Kivrin's teacher, James Dunworthy (the other central character of the book). He's terribly worried about Kivrin's safety, but she's just terribly anxious to go. As much as Dunworthy had tried to prevent it, he'd finally given in. And Kivrin, of course, was tutored by various people in all she'd need to know, and had all her inoculations, T-cell enhancement, and so forth. Despite all Dunworthy's concerns, nothing was really likely to go wrong. The book begins on the day of the drop.
Unexpectedly, shortly after the drop, Badri Chaudhuri, the tech who was running the net, fell unconscious after saying something was wrong, and was taken to the infirmary. Shortly after that, the epidemic started, and a quarantine imposed. Dr. Mary Ahrens would have her hands full, since most of the university's staff and students were away for the holiday, though Dunworthy and his assistant, Mr. Finch, did their best to help with the ever-increasing influx of patients, as did the few other staffers on hand (aside, that is, from archaeologist Lupe Montoya, who just wanted to be allowed to get back to her dig, of Skendgate, the village she hoped Kivrin would go to in 1320). Also, Mary's 12-year-old great-nephew, Colin, was visiting her for the holiday, though he was put in Dunworthy's care, since Mary was so busy at the infirmary. He was a great help to everyone, and I quite liked his slang (apocalyptic=cool, necrotic=terrible). And there was a group of American bell-ringers on a tour, staying at the college. Prior to the epidemic they were basically just a hassle and source of wry comic relief, but later, they helped as best they could, until becoming patients themselves. They would also serve perhaps as a source of a sort of symbolism. Then there was William Gaddson, a student who had stayed at college over the holiday, ostensibly to read Petrarch, but more likely to avoid his overprotective and overbearing mother, who, of course, showed up, once the epidemic started, to complain about everything and everyone, and raise morale by reading Biblical passages of gloom and doom. Meanwhile, no one could get ahold of Basingame, who was supposed to be fishing in Scotland. Nor could Dunworthy find a tech to read the fix, so he was constantly worrying about Kivrin.
Kivrin had contracted the same potentially fatal flu virus that so many people back home now had, and nearly died herself. Luckily, she was nursed back to health by some of the contemps. For a time, despite the tutoring she'd had in contemporary languages, and the interpreter in her head, she couldn't understand what anyone was saying. And then once she could, they still couldn't understand her. But somehow, the problem cleared up, though she claimed not to remember who she was. She ended up staying at the manor house with Lady Eliwys and her mother-in-law, Imeyne, and taking care of Eliwys's daughters, Agnes and Rosemund. Eliwys's husband was away in Bath. Kivrin's main concern was locating the drop site, which she had been carried away from in feverish delirium, but she could never get a chance to talk to the person who had found her, especially since Imeyne was constantly suspicious of her. Meanwhile, she did grow to care for the girls, as well as Father Roche, the local priest (with whom Imeyne was constantly finding fault). But then, one of the book's major twists occurred, making things infinitely more difficult than they already had been. Eventually, the rendezvous came and went, and she missed it. Which didn't matter so much, because there was no rendezvous. Despite Dunworthy's best efforts, he couldn't reopen the net in time, partly because of the epidemic and the lack of available techs, but also largely because of Gilchrist's determination against it. Later, of course, Colin would want to go and look for her....
I must say, I found most if not all of the book's twists predictable, but not in a bad way. Somehow it seemed reasonable to me if the characters were taken by surprise by these things, and that's not a feeling I'm used to having in regard to predictable twists. I hope you'll take that as the commendation of the author's skill that I intend it to be. In any event, whether you might be expected to predict the twists or not, I don't want to give any of them away, here. They each come at the perfect point in the reading (however impatiently you may anticipate them), and I've no intention of depriving you of their timely arrival. I will say that there is in fact a fair amount of humor in the book, chiefly in the 21st century portions. Certainly not an inordinate amount, given the circumstances, and while many bits made me smile or laugh, it is, for the most part, very dry, subtle humor. Very British. It should also be mentioned how real the characters are. Those that I felt I came to truly know, I also came to truly care about and empathize with. Others I didn't so much get to know, but certainly got to dislike. Even so, they were all real. A great cross section of personalities is represented, and I found none of them unbelievable. I think the person of whom I have the most mixed opinion is William Gaddson. There is an element of his character of which I can't help but disapprove, and yet otherwise, he seemed a good sort, and even that which I disliked about him proved rather invaluable in any number of ways. Naturally, of course, the ones we get to know best, and care the most about, are Dunworthy and Kivrin, for the story is told from their perspectives. I think Colin comes third on that list. But I also cared for Mary, Roche, Agnes, and others in both centuries.
I should mention that, aside from the interpreter, Kivrin was also implanted with corder chips in her wrists, into which she speaks to record all that happens to her. Even if, by some chance, she were to die in the past, her observations would be preserved, and assuming they could find her remains 700 years later, recovered. Excerpts from these recordings, which she called the Domesday Book, named after the survey commissioned by William the Conqueror, and compiled in 1086, appear at the end of several chapters. So... what's left to say? I learned that the Black Death, which came to England in 1348, was actually comprised of three concurrent plagues, rather than just the bubonic, as I had previously thought. I also learned the word "bubo," before which I had no idea what the word "bubonic" actually meant. But these things may simply be evidence of woeful gaps in my own education.
I don't want to say too much about the end. Suffice to say that events take their toll on the characters, as well as the reader. I do want to say that I have a habit of writing future passages in my head, of books I'm reading, shows I'm watching, etc. Often I prefer my endings to the real ones, when I get to them. Not so here. I believe the author has written the best possible ending to her story; that is to say, the most believable, the most appropriate ending. The feeling I was left with... let's just say it wasn't all good or all bad, but just what it should have been. The whole book was like that; just what it should have been. And that's all I can think to say about it.
Connie Willis' Official Webpage
Galen's Connie Willis Profile Page
Galen's reviews of Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Blackout/All Clear
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