Dec 27, 2010

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The year is 2054, and at the University of Oxford historians from the medieval studies department are getting ready to send a student named Kivrin Engle to 1320. Kivrin is going right before Christmas, hoping to be able to see how the season was observed in the Middle Ages. Her tutor, Professor James Dunworthy, worries about her endlessly – one of the reasons being the fact that he doesn’t trust Medieval to run the drop cautiously and effectively. But despite his fears, he knows Kivrin has done everything she can to prepare herself for her journey: she has learned Middle English, she has been inoculated against all known diseases of the period, and she has come up with a convincing story about who she is and what a young woman like her is doing on her own on the road between Bath and Oxford.

But despite all these precautions, not everything goes according to plan. Shortly after Kivrin is sent to the past, Badri Chaudhuri, the technician in charge of setting the coordinates for the drop, suddenly falls ill. But not before telling Professor Dunworthy that something has gone wrong. Before anyone quite knows what’s happening, Oxford has been quarantined, just in time to separate people from their families at Christmas. And while things in the present turn chaotic, Kivrin is stuck in the past, suffering from the same unknown illness Badri has, and about to face far more than she ever bargained for.

Earlier this year, when I posted about Connie Willis’ amazing To Say Nothing of the Dog, I apologised for having written a sloppy plot summary that probably made the book sound far less appealing than it really is. I’m afraid I’m going to have to do the same here: Doomsday Book is almost as amazing, about as heartbreaking as TSNOTD is funny, and just as difficult to summarise (which doesn’t of course mean it’s at all difficult to follow). But in any case, the plot isn’t the only reason why you want to read Doomsday Book. There’s also the amazing characterisation, the way Willis brings the Middle Ages to life, and the fact that this is one of the most moving studies of what it means to be human I’ve ever come across, all wrapped in a very gripping historical fiction slash science fiction novel.

The main theme of Doomsday Book is perhaps the universality of human emotions. Yes, in many ways the past is another country, and as we have no way of travelling back in time and entering the minds of those who lived back then, we can’t ever really assess just how different this other country really is. But having said this, I don’t at all agree that the feelings of anyone who lived more than fifty years ago are impenetrable to us – and neither does Connie Willis, who has one of the historians from Medieval tell Kivrin:
“Attitudes towards death in the 1300s differed greatly from ours. Death was a common and accepted part of life, and the contemps were incapable of feeling loss or grief.” (Oh really?)
…and then has the whole novel disprove this point. If the past were that foreign, would the emotions in The Epic of Gilgamesh still feel so fresh or be so easy to relate to? Not to mention Ancient Greek and Roman drama or poetry, or Shakespeare, or… well, you get the point. Obviously there are differences between the present and the past, but taking them too far can lead to a dehumanisation of history – which I suspect is Willis’ whole point. She clearly takes a swipe at that line of thinking, and she shows us that differences aside, grief is grief, fear is fear, death is death, and humanity is humanity.

The people Kivrin meets in the Middle Ages are absolutely human and feel completely real: there’s Agnes, the five-year-old who constantly wants to play with her puppy and pony; there’s her sister Rosamond, engaged to be married at twelve and terrified of her adult future husband; there’s Lady Eliwys, worried about her absent husband; there’s Lady Imeyene, involved in a constant power struggle with her daughter-in-law; there’s Father Roche, illiterate and awkward but extremely kind. They are all characters you can’t help but grow to care about, which only makes the book the more moving. Also, and unlike what sometimes happens in novels with parallel storylines, the plot about the epidemic in Oxford is every bit as interesting as the one set in Middle Age. I particularly liked how Connie Willis cleverly established thematic parallels between the two, no matter how many centuries separate the characters – which again serves to illustrate her point about universality.

I don’t want to say too much about what exactly happens in Doomsday Book, but the story grows increasingly dark and heartbreaking as it progresses. And this brings me to yet another one of its main themes: hope, and just how much we humans need it. I don’t mean a na├»ve, head-in-the-sand kind of hope, but rather the kind that keeps us from despairing and giving up even when we realise that things are at their bleakest.

Kivrin never stops hoping, hoping against all reasonable hope. Her determination not to despair not only drags the reader along, but makes the book’s final chapter all the more heartbreaking. The final line of the book really moved me for this exact reason – though if I’m to be honest I’ll have to confess I’d been in tears for a good fifty pages by then. All along Kivrin has hope, even if she has no way of knowing what she says she has always known. Again, this isn’t about naively assuming that everything is always going to be okay – it won’t, and in Doomsday Book things are very much not okay. Rather, it’s about our propensity to look after ourselves and each other until we draw our very last breath, because the alternative is too dark to face.

Connie Willis has blown me away yet again. Blackout next?

Two bits that absolutely broke my heart (I may have teared up again while typing them up):
“Grandmother says it is a mortal sin to fear your husband, but I cannot help it. He touches me in ways that are not seemly and tells me tales of things that cannot be true.”
I hope he dies in agony, Kivrin thought. I hope he is infected already.
“My father is even now on his way,” Rosemund said.
“You must try to sleep.”
“If Sir Bloet were here now he would not dare to touch me,” she said and closed her eyes. “It would be he who was afraid.”

I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened. I know you would have come to get me if you could, but I couldn’t have gone anyway, not with Agnes ill.
I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.
Other opinions:
Stella Matutina
Becky’s Book Reviews
At Home With Books


  1. This is one of my all time faves, and I've reread it multiple times. I have yet to read anything else of hers though.

  2. You'll have to read To Say Nothing of the Dog then! I think I liked it even better than this, but that might have to do with my obsession with the Victorians :P Both are brilliant, though.

  3. That sounds so good, but then you make every book sound absolutely amazing! :) I think I'll try to read To Say Nothing of the Dog first though, I have to be in the mood for heartbreaking.

  4. For some reason it's really confusing for me that Willis's other book has the same title (in part) as the Jerome K. Jerome book...not that that has anything to do with this review, it was just a sparked side note...

  5. AFter I read the review of this book at Alyce's, I ordered it from the library...and I'm on hold! This is not a new book, so I am amazed at this fact. Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading it. It seems like a perfect book to get lost in.

  6. This is one of my absolute favorite books EVER! I don't know if you have seen that Blackout (and its sequel) uses some of the same characters - not Kivrin, but the others play small roles. To me, none of her other books come up to the level of Doomsday, but some of her others are STILL some of my favorite books, because she is so good!!!

  7. P.S. My review of Doomsday was just dinky, because I had a bigger one comparing it to another book about the same time period, Kristin Lavrensdatter (here in case you are interested - ) It killed me that Kristin L. is considered so great and even won the Nobel Prize, and Doomsday is SO MUCH BETTER!

  8. Uh oh, this sounds um... sad! But it also sounds really great. Hmm... I'll have to consider what to do ;)

  9. There is an excellent interview with Connie Willis on a Startship Sofa Podcast. You can download it for free from the iTunes store. I think you'd enjoy it.

    I've not read her before, but after listenting to her interview, I think I'd find her books fun. I'll look for this one and TSNAOTD.

  10. Bina: It's definitely best to brace yourself for this one!

    Amanda: It'll all make sense when you read it! The book draws heavily from Three Men in a Boat and it's full of intertextual references to other books. That was part of what was so fun about it!

    Sandy: I actually love that it's still popular after all these years! I hope your turn comes soon.

    Jill: Clicking over to read your comparison in a minute! It's a pity that a book like this would never ever win a Noble, for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality.

    Amy: Nothing wrong with sad, right? ;)

    C.B. James: Thanks for telling me about it! And I hope you enjoy her work :)

  11. Ana! I am so glad you read this one! It is one of my favorite books of all time, and I think your review on it was beautiful! I also fell in love with little Agnes as well. "I would play with my puppy" is a line I will never forget. So, so awesome to hear that you loved this one so much, it put a huge smile on my face!!

  12. Doomsday Book is one of those that I would love to be able to rediscover. I find it intensely moving - although a pleasure to re-read because I love the characters so much, I have to prepare myself for how sad it is. I'm so glad you enjoyed it too - I hesitate to recommend it to people in case they don't love it :)

  13. This sounds so interesting. It's not something I would normally pick up on my own but your lovely review has intrigued me.

  14. How can it be possible to be so in love with a book you've never read? But I swear I am after reading your review! I do believe I know where some of my gift card money is going...

  15. Zibilee: Agnes was my favourite! I STILL can't think about her for too long without tearing up. The bit that stayed with me the most was her half-crying and saying "I would see Rosemund" when she first fell ill and Kivrin tried to separate them. *sniff*

    GeraniumCat: I know that feeling well! I want to re-read this at some point and spend time with the characters all over again, but I know I'll have to brace myself for that final section.

    Brenna: I think this is a perfect book to recommend to anyone who normally shies away from sci-fi. I hope you do read it!

    Debi: Yes, get it! I think Becky has picked this for Chris to read, so you could read it together. How's that for an extra incentive? :P

  16. Ecxellent review! I loved this book, read it a few times over again. I've always hoped to find another Willis I liked as much as this book (for some reason I couldn't get through Say Nothing of the Dog)...

  17. Why have I still not read this? It's been on my TBR list since high school (so at least six years) but I've never even picked it up! Thanks so much for the fantastic review - hopefully this will finally encourage me to read it in 2011!

  18. The Doomsday Book is absolutely great! You might also want to take a look at The Plague Tales by Ann Benson. I read the two books almost back to back many years ago & it was interesting to compare them.


  19. I went to the bookstore yesterday and this was one book on my list that I couldn't find. Darn. Now I really want to read it now! :)

  20. I do want to read this novel, especially after reading your review. I loved your point about the universality of human emotions. I thoroughly enjoyed Blackout; I bet you would like it too.

  21. This was already on my wish list, but this is a great review! I definitely want to read more Connie Willis. I adored To Say Nothing of the Dog, even if it's in a very different vein.

  22. I teared up all over again just reading your review. This is definitely one to read and reread. Agnes!

  23. I've never heard of this one! I think I might have to request it right now. I *might* be ready for a heartbreaking book by now. It sounds so good.

  24. Oh! *flaily hands* I'm so glad you loved it. This book is so near and dear to my heart that I would have wept if you hadn't loved it.

  25. Glad you liked this book, I enjoyed it very much, too. I love good time travel stories. I haven't read anything else by Willis, but I will!

  26. This book is getting added to my list for 2011 right now. I am intrigued by the premise, the setting, and the emotional investment you were able to make into the characters. This has all of the elements necessary to be a read that I will enjoy.

  27. I've wanted to read something by Connie Willis, and this one sounds absolutely fascinating! I'll add it to my TBR list right away. Sounds like it'll be a good place to start.

  28. Jeane: Sorry to hear you didn't like TSNoTD! There's always Blackout and All Clear.. they're also about time travel, this time to Ww2, and most people seem to love them.

    Claire: I hope you enjoy it when you finally do! (I've had books on my TBR for almost as long as that, so I understand.)

    Tiina: Many thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely look into The Plague Tales.

    Iliana: Aw, I hope you find it soon!

    Debi: yay :D

    Melody: Hope you enjoy it!

    Stephanie: I'm sure I would too! I pretty much want to read everything Willis has written.

    Aarti: I think you're going to enjoy this one as well. The two are different in tone, but you can still tell it's the same writer if that makes sense.

    Memory. Aaaaagnes :(

    Daphne: Enjoy - and keep tissues at hand!

    Raych: I know that feeling!

    Leeswammes: I hope you enjoy the rest of her work! And I hope I do too, as I've only read two books :P

    Kathleen: I hope you do enjoy it! Looking forward to hearing what you think :)

    Erin: Either this or To Say Nothing of the Dog would be great intros. Enjoy!

  29. Wow, never fear that your review will somehow not make Doomsday Book sound uninteresting. As Debi said up above, I'm half in love with the book already just from your review. I look forward to reading it.

  30. I've been meaning to read Connie Willis' books for ages but still haven't managed to. I've heard so many wonderful things about her novels. I really should, right?

  31. I just discovered your blog and wanted to let you know I linked to this post in my blog post about All Clear by Connie Willis today. I thought you really captured the essence of The Doomsday Book (one of my all-time favorites).


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