Monday, 5 July 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

What a wonderful book. I read it in one day, which is lucky for me, because this book is written at such a breathless pace that it's a very difficult book to put down. Blackout is a return to Willis' time-travelling world set in 2150, which we saw previously in Dooms Day and Say Nothing of the Dog, featuring Mr Dunworthy as the head of the time travelling history department. In these books, Willis has created a science fiction world of time travel done by historians who go back in time to learn what history was really like. In this book, some of the time travellers - focusing on three specific time travellers, Merope, Polly and Michael - go back to England during WW2. They go to Dunkirk, the evacuation of the children from London to the countryside, and the beginnings of the Blitz - London in 1940. And from the opening lines as Colin searches for Polly to give her a message, to the last line when a mysterious 5th time traveller comes to London just as the bombs are about to fall, this book is enchanting. There is a fourth time traveller who we get part of the story for, but nothing in depth as the first three. That will come later, I expect.

I felt like I was really there during the Blitz, hearing the bombs fall, the airplanes as they droned over the city, the air raid sirens, the explosions. We see London through the eyes of Polly, who is undercover as a shopgirl, we see the evacuated children in the countryside through the eyes of Merope, who is working as a maid in the country house, and we see Dunkirk through Michael's eyes. The switch from character to character works very well here, and Willis is an expert at leaving the chapter just as things get interesting. I really could not put this book down. My only warning is that this is part one of two, as the publisher broke the book into two parts, and All Clear will be published in October of this year - thankfully, I do not have too long to wait!

This book is a great beach read. By this I mean, you could read it in one day, laugh out loud and cry, and come away completely satisfied. It is enjoyable, well-researched, filled with interesting characters and even has some funny moments, as well as some of the best secondary characters in all of fiction. Every character is memorable, and I really feel as if I had just taken a trip back to London my self.

Even though I qualify it as a beach read or excellent book to read in the heat (which means you can't do anything except read anyway, hurray for summer!), it does have some interesting ideas about history and time travel. If time travel existed, how do we know if our actions will affect history or not? Are we allowed to do anything, and if we do, what happens? does it matter if we get involved in locals' lives? In Willis' theory of time travel, the net - the transportation site to and from historical locations - won't let you in if you arrive at a crucial point in history because the danger of affecting it is too great. But Polly, Michael and Merope end up trapped in the Blitz, when their pick-up times pass and their nets won't open. If the science theory that observation changes the outcome of the experiment is applied to time travel, has Mr Dunworthy discovered too late that sending people back in time is more dangerous than anyone realized? That history has indeed been changed already? Even though time travel doesn't exist yet, these are questions I find myself asking while reading this book, which is a sign that even though I haven't been aware of it, Willis has been asking them all along. What does it mean to time travel? Is it safe? What happens when the way back home is temporarily closed? Are there any moments in time that it is safe to become part of, if you weren't there the first time around? Very interesting questions, I think. I'm really looking forward to Part Two in October.



Onesimus said...

Yes a wonderful book.It's annoying that we have to wait for so long for the conclusion.

Willis's earlier book Doomsday Book was one of my favourites many years ago, so I was very keen to read this one when I found out about it. I love the idea of time travel stories and the complications that would arise out of people becoming involved in historical events.

I found the portrayal of wartime Britain was so vivid that after finishing this book I started to read non-fiction accounts to get a better understanding of the events.

I wrote my own review of it here:

Kerry said...

I loved this book. I can't wait for All Clear to come out.

I, too, felt that I was there with the characters in the war. I've found that any mentions of the Blitz in other media seem much more real since I read this.

Great book and great review.

Molly said...

What a timely review for me, Susan! I am interested in reading more time travel novels and this sounds perfect!!

Unknown said...

I was hoping you'd get around to this book. I purchased it on the day of initial distribution, hoping my area bookshop would open the store at Midnight and invite crowds to arrive in costume as Mr. Dunworthy, Badri, and others, but that party only occurred in my mind. Why does Connie Willis' writing move me unlike almost no other authors? I found my answer in a Locus Online Review article by Adrienne Martini. She writes, "Willis is...a master at fully immersing the reader in her worlds without resorting to clunky informational dumps. Her 1940s Britain is richly textured, perhaps because she is so keen at focusing her attentions on her characters and how they respond to the time they are experiencing, rather than painting vast canvases for them to walk across." I plan to read this novel again just before All Clear arrives. I'll get in line early for the bookstore to open.

chrisa511 said...

This sounds fascinating, Susan!! I can't believe I still haven't read anything by Willis. I have this huge block against her for some reason and I know that it's just ridiculous!! I don't know what my deal is :/ I need to just read something of hers!

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Susan said...

Onesimus: thank you so much for leaving a comment! I am delighted that you are another fan of Connie Willis. We have to convince Chris below to start reading her :-) I gave Doomsday and Bellwether to everyone at different Christmases. I think when this one comes out in softcover it will end up under a few more trees, too! Which is of course the highest praise we can give any book, isn't it?

I know what you mean about the portrayal of war-time Britain. Did you find any particularly good non-fiction accounts? I am interested in reading some now too because of Willis.

I'll come read your post, thanks.

LeatriceNay: I hope this is a positive comment about reading widely :-)

Kerry: It was a great book, and thanks so much for liking my review! I'm so glad you loved it too. I know I should put All Clear on my Christmas list, but I'm quite sure I can't wait that long to read it! Did you like the appearance of the person who would become an actor in real life? That was most amusing to read!

Molly: I hope you give her a try. Please do! She really is good reading, among the best.

Kenosha Media Community: I had no idea anyone was waiting for me to read this or any book! lol thank you for the compliment. It's lovely to meet so many other people who love Willis like I do. I had read that review by Adrienne and that's what convinced me I couldn't wait for the softcover to come out. I buy very few hardcovers because I can't carry them. So I was fortunate it was so hot here all I could do was sit and read for the day!! Engrossing, indeed. I am not sure anyone could dress as Mr Dunworthy et al though the idea is amusing. I see him as grey-haired, dressed as a professor, glasses, kind of nondescript. Not very exciting, in other words! Have you read her short fiction too? The Last of the Winnibegos, the one she won the award for, has always stuck in my mind. Just an amazing wonderful moving writer. She makes me cry so easily!

Chris: you've got to read her!!! Really.....she's among the best and so easily accessible - no special science knowledge needed, trust me. And she's funny. Bellwether is among the funniest books I've ever read. Really!!!

Onesimus said...

Hi Susan,
The book about WWII that I'm reading is Second World War by Martin Gilbert.

Its a big, solid book and I'm going through it slowly, but it really opened my eyes to the cruelty of the nazis and the horrific daily death toll.


Jodie Robson said...

I long to read this but I musn't buy any new books at the moment (we need a new chicken house!) so it will have to wait. No prospect whatsoever of the library having it, I'm afraid. But I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Susan said...

Onesimus: I've seen the book you're reading, so I'll look for it from the library :-) thanks!

Geraniumcat: book or chicken coop, book or chicken It's still hard to choose sometimes, isn't it? I know the chickens will appreciate a better home! The book is very good, so maybe when you're in London, you can put it aside for Christmas. Sometimes just knowing I have a book put aside is good enough!

Onesimus said...

The wait is nearly over!

I heard today that a review copy of All Clear has been mailed to me by the local (Australian) publisher. I'm just hoping I finish the book I'm currently concentrating on(Reckless by Cornelia Funke) before it arrives.

I want make a start on All Clear as soon as I can - and I probably need to refresh my memory about the end of Blackout before then.

Exciting times!