I’m doing a bit better on my book challenge this month. This time I’m reviewing The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, published in 1992. This is the first book on the list so far that had never heard of, and the first one that I’ve given a 5/5 rating. Read on to find out why I loved this book so much!
This book takes place in the near future 21st century, where historians not only study the past via archaeological digs and old tomes, but also by traveling back in time to experience things for themselves. The technology is in its growth phase in the book, established enough that there are protocols for it and trained technicians to oversee it but new enough that whole swaths of history are still off-limits due to safety concerns. Kivrin, our protagonist, is a bright and determined student at Oxford who wants to be the first to visit the 1300s.
The novel opens as Kivrin is being prepared to leave for her journey to 1320. There’s comedic but all-too-real rivalry between departments or schools at the university. Her mentor Dunworthy specializes in less remote time periods that are more routinely open to time travel, and is concerned about her safety and the way the drop is being rushed. Meanwhile the acting head of the medieval department appears more focused on the prestige and opportunity he might gain by pushing the project through before the actual department head returns from Christmas vacation. Kivrin herself is just excited to be on her way to see the middle ages at Christmastime and wants everyone to stop worrying over her. The whole book is full of genuine-feeling interactions between characters with real motivations and expressions and it’s part of why I enjoyed it so much.
The drop to 1320 appears to be a success, but shortly after it is completed the technician in charge comes down with a serious illness. Unbeknownst to the modern characters, Kivrin also becomes ill upon arrival in the past. The net that allows time travel is supposed to be impervious to things like diseases coming back through, but did something go wrong? The story splits, and follows both Kivrin’s experiences in the 1300s and the epidemic happening in 21st century Oxford. We get treated to the antics of overprotective mothers, precocious children, and status-seekers across the centuries. There are heroes and saints and villains but mostly there are average folks just trying to make the best of terrible situations and get on with their lives.
What started out as a story about time travel turned out to be part medical mystery, part survival story, and part family drama. It was so satisfying to watch these parts unfold in tandem across both timelines. Also, though I don’t usually like children in general, it was impossible not to become attached to the children in this story. Colin, in the future, watches the epidemic unfold with morbid fascination, ducking past quarantine lines, helping in the hospital, and endlessly sucking on his everlasting gobstopper. Agnes, in the past, could be any young girl in any age, playing with her puppy, teasing her older sister, jingling her new bell during mass when she’s supposed to be quiet. I absolutely cared about these characters and wanted them to have a happy end to their stories, even the ones who, from one perspective, had already been dead for hundreds of years. I stayed up way too late reading the last section of the book in one go because I was too invested to put it down before I knew what happened to all of these people I cared about. And that’s leaving out the biggest question: Would Kivrin ever make it home?
The strength of the last book I read for this challenge (Perdido Street Station) was in the deft complexity of the story threads and the way the city itself felt alive. By contrast, I was almost always a few steps ahead of the plot of The Doomsday Book, but it didn’t matter in the slightest because I genuinely cared about the characters and wanted to see how things played out. It also helped immensely that the grim realities of life in the middle ages and in the midst of a modern epidemic are at least partially offset by moments of humor and human kindness. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!
The past is wonderful and terrible and nothing like you imagined, but you will be glad you made the journey.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Rating: 5/5 stars
Verdict: Deeply human and relatable characters and an engaging story make this my first 5/5 book of the challenge. You should read it!