Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #30: Blackout by Connie Willis
My school’s librarian suggested Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog to me last autumn, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I picked up Blackout simply because it was by the same author, even though I knew nothing of the story. I liked it a great deal, but I wish I’d known it was part one of a two-part novel before I began. If I didn’t already have a stack of books checked out from the library, I would have gone back immediately to get the second half of this story, so that’s a good sign, but I wish this novel had some sort of resolution.
Blackout, like To Say Nothing of the Dog, is set in Oxford in a future in which time travel is possible but is utilized primarily by historians who travel back in time to witness historic events to see if they really happened as reported in history books. After some fumbling about with safety procedures, the historians have discovered that history has some built-in methods of protecting itself. For example, the “drop” that opens when a historian lands in another time and place from his or her own won’t work if someone is around to see it. Instead, history will divert the historian to another nearby spot or to a slightly different time to keep the contemporaries from witnessing the time traveler. This process is known as slippage. Similarly, drops won’t open to allow a historian to back to his/her own time if someone is around to see them, so the time travel gurus have to make sure that drops open periodically (say, every half hour or so on Wednesdays) so that the time traveler has plenty of opportunities to step back into the “net” and return home without being seen. As Blackout opens, increasing slippage in some drops has caused a bit of concern in Oxford, but historians are still coming and going through time. The novel focuses on three time travelers in particular, Mike, Eileen, and Polly, who have all gone back to the 1940s. Eileen (whose real name is Merope) has been working as maid/nanny at a country estate that has taken in London children during the Blitz. Polly is working as a shop girl in London in order to witness the Blitz first-hand. As a historian, she has knowledge of all the strikes during the time she’s supposed to be on assignment, so she can stay safe through the mayhem. Mike poses as an American newspaperman and goes to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk. Each of the three does something that may have an impact on history, and they each discover, to their horror, that their drops won’t open for them as scheduled. Hoping to find an open drop, Mike and Eileen both make their way to London and meet up with Polly, only to find that they are trapped in the past. Together, the three must do their best to survive the Blitz, work to support themselves, and try to find another way back to the future.
The novel is long, but it reads fairly quickly, and I found myself especially fascinated by the descriptions of the Blitz. I was aware of it, of course, but I don’t think I had ever really thought about what it would mean to live through bombing raids until I read this book. It felt completely believable in its awfulness, and I was really disappointed to reach the end of the novel only to find that it is a two-parter. I’m sure I’ll read the second half soon to find out what happens to the characters.