You know that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where the man with the death cart enters the plague-ridden village to pick up all of the day’s bodies? This scene?
That’s pretty much all I could think about while I read Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.
I think by now, most of us know the plot, so I’ll be brief. In the future (around 2054), scientists at Oxford University are sending historians back through history. Some sort of time “net” has been created, and there are lots and lots of rules about time travel. Young history student Kivrin has been selected to travel to 1320 to see what life was like before the Plague came and killed half of Europe.
But of course, something goes wrong. Kivrin doesn’t end up where she thought she would, or when. And because she comes back from the future with a severe virus, she doesn’t remember how to get back to her drop point so that she can eventually return to her where and when.
Meanwhile, Kivrin’s favorite teacher, Mr. Dunworthy, is doing all that he can to find out where and when Kivrin was sent, and how he can safely get her home.
Oh, and did I mention that Oxford has been quarantined and that a pandemic is sweeping through the town, sickening and killing almost everyone that comes in contact with it?
Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it?
And sometimes, it actually is. The book jumps back and forth between Kivrin’s adventures in the 14th century and Mr. Dunworthy in modern-day Oxford, and it’s all very well done. But my god, some parts of it boring.
It took me ages to get to the exciting parts — for those of you reading on a kindle, that would be 67%. I felt like the first 2/3 of the book were sometimes tortuous. Someone is looking for someone and can’t find them. People make phone calls that aren’t returned. Colleagues fight over who is in charge. Annoying mothers say annoying things. People worry if there will be enough food and toilet paper to last for the duration of the quarantine. And Gobstoppers are sucked on and then put away. Over and over and over again.
I know. I get that there has to be a build up for a story to create dramatic tension and make things exciting. But for me, the first 67% was difficult.
But the last third of the book was pretty damn fascinating, and well worth the struggle of the first part.
When Kivrin realizes she isn’t in the “when” she thought she was and that the illness around her was the plague, and Mr. Dunworthy and Colin make the decision to attempt a time-travel rescue, the pace of the book becomes almost manic. The actions and decisions are fast and furious. And there is a lot of heartbreaking sadness as well.
SPOILERS (But really, we all read this, didn’t we?)
I honestly thought someone from the village would survive and somehow return to the future with Kivrin, or that Kivrin would stay with Agnes or Rosemund. I really didn’t expect her to be the sole survivor. I wonder how stable she’ll be when she returns to her present with Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and has to deal with all that she’s experienced.
I was also surprised by the heroism of Roche, in a time when it was thought that the priests all hightailed it to safer places. His bravery, intelligence, and willingness to stay and care for his parishioners, when we are originally led to believe is a bumbling idiot, was really touching.
Most of all, when Agnes went from setting a place for “cart” at the table to dying a few pages later, I was shocked. And so sad. But I understand why Agnes, so young and innocent, had to die. The plague didn’t care. But still. So many tears.
So, yeah. In the end, I really enjoyed the book. It just took me a while to get into it. I’m not sure if I’ll be following up with any of Willis’ other time travel books, but this gets a strong 4 stars from me.