17 January, 2019

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a novel I've read several times over the years, and is a novel I both love and hate. In 2054, they've invented time travel (and, for reasons which are never explained, it's controlled by incompetent historians at Oxford University), and a young student called Kivrin goes back to 1320, during Edward II's reign - or so she thinks. In fact, she ends up in 1348 by mistake, and gets caught up in the first terrible epidemic of the Black Death.

The novel was published in 1992 and written in the late 1980s, and unfortunately the author did not anticipate mobile phones or email or the internet, with unintentionally hilarious results. It's supposed to be set in 2054, but a person who could sort the mess out is on a fishing holiday in Scotland and is therefore as unreachable as if he'd travelled to the far side of the universe, and there are more scenes than I can count where desperate people phone other people's landlines but they're not at home so they have to leave messages, but the people don't receive these urgent messages because the people who were meant to pass them on don't or because bits of paper where the urgent messages have been written down flutter to the ground and are missed, and so on. A scene where someone gasps out 'something is wrong' then conveniently faints or rushes off before he can explain what's wrong seems to happen about 147 times, and the astonishingly inept historians at Oxford who for unfathomable reasons have been put in charge of time travel finally clock that Kivrin is in 1348, not in 1320, on p. 405 of the 578-page novel. Basically, the whole thing makes much more sense if you assume it's set in an alternate reality 1954 where they have a time machine rather than in 2054. There's a quarantine going on in the Oxford of 2054, people wear ear muffs and shop at Woolworths, and the author seems to think that in British English a 'muffler' is a kind of scarf rather than a car part. The word 'muffler' in the context she uses it is so hilariously old-fashioned I'm not sure if even my great-grandparents would have used it, so the novel sometimes gives the impression of being set in 1854, never mind 1954. The last couple of times I've read Doomsday Book, I've skipped the weirdly dated supposedly futuristic scenes and just read all the fourteenth-century scenes, and it improved the experience immeasurably.

The names of a few of the characters throw me too. Why on earth is the main character from 2054 called 'Kivrin'? Why does a fourteenth-century English nobleman (whom we don't meet, Eliwys's husband and Imeyne's son) have a French name, Guillaume? Another thing I find deeply irritating is that fourteenth-century people are always referred to as 'the contemps', i.e. contemporaries. Could you not just call them 'people'? I also really did not warm to Kivrin as a character at all.

Early in the novel before Kivrin travels back in time, she talks to Dunworthy, her professor who has a fixation on her that I find deeply creepy. He tells her that no-one has ever travelled back to the fourteenth century before as it's too dangerous, as they 'were still burning witches in 1320'. Heh?? Burning witches in 1320? He says this again a bit later, when he comments that life expectancy was thirty-eight in the early fourteenth century and that was only if you didn't get burned alive for witchcraft. Why does this professional historian in charge of time travel not know the difference between 1320 and 1620? He also thinks that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the fourteenth century. Errrrmmmm. People fret that Kivrin will get cholera, which didn't actually exist in England at the time, and the narrative tells us that we have No. Sources. Whatsoever! for people's lives in the Middle Ages except tax rolls and parish records and that therefore we don't know anything. This is nonsense on stilts. So many sources survive; we have thousands of wills from fourteenth-century England, the chancery rolls, lots of household accounts, letters, petitions, court rolls, parliament rolls, plea rolls, mayors' rolls, coroners' rolls, the London Assize of Nuisance, and much more. So, so much more. And the narrative endlessly contradicts itself by making wild sweeping generalisations that 'the contemps did X' and 'the contemps thought Y' and 'the contemps believed Z'. As one example of many, in 1348 a puppy dies, and Kivrin smugly tells us that 'the contemps disposed of dead animals by tossing them into the underbrush or dumping them in a stream,' as though she's canvassed every single medieval person's opinion on the matter. But I thought we had no sources and didn't know anything, so where are you getting this? Throughout, there's a tendency to portray the fourteenth century in the most cliched and negative way possible, so everyone and everything is filthy all the time, and a twelve-year-old character, Rosamund, who looks even younger than she is, is shortly to marry a man in his fifties. To me, it seemed as though Kivrin was looking at the people she met down her nose all the time and that the reader is meant to share her distaste of OH MY GOD LOOK AN ADOLESCENT CHILD HAS TO MARRY A MAN OLD ENOUGH TO BE HER GRANDFATHER AND OH MY GOD THEY HAVE FLEAS, HOW PRIMITIVE AND HORRIBLE THESE PEOPLE ARE.

When Kivrin first arrives in 1348, for the first few days she can't understand the Middle English the 'contemps' (heh) are speaking. Their speech appears on the page phonetically, the way Kivrin hears it. A lot of it, I can work out, but a lot I can't. Thanway maunhollp anhour means 'Then we must help [holpen] her', and Spaegun yovor tongawn glais? means 'Speak you our English tongue?', and Got tallon wottes means 'God alone knows'. Other bits, I can't get. Auf specherit darmayt is beyond me, except darmayt probably means 'the maid'. Or Maetinkerr woun dahest wexe hoordoumbe and Nor nayte boorcows derouthe. I really think Connie Willis should have explained and translated all this in an author's note at the end. It's very frustrating that it isn't.

Kivrin is seriously ill and burning up with fever when she arrives in the past, and hallucinates that the 'contemps' are burning her at the stake, because, you know, that's what people do for laughs in 1320 according to our stunningly brilliant historian Dunworthy; they encounter women in the woods and randomly burn them alive. A large part of the novel involves Kivrin lying in bed seriously ill, and she spends most of the rest of it wondering how she's going to locate and get back to 'the drop', i.e. the place where she arrived in the past, as she needs to be there at a certain pre-arranged time in order to return to 2054. The words 'the drop' and 'slippage' appear so often in the novel you could play a drinking game with them. You'd think that an advanced society able to invent time travel and to come up with a 'memory enhancer' in the brain which enables Kivrin to speak and understand Middle English might be clever enough to put some kind of locator on her so that they know exactly where and when she is. Instead, as noted above, they finally figure it out on page 405. Durrrrrrr. These are the people in charge of time travel. Or you'd expect them maybe to be able to open 'the net' that will bring her back to the twenty-first century anywhere, instead of requiring her to find the exact clearing in the large wood where she arrived, or even to realise that forcing Kivrin to find and identify a specific clearing in a large wood full of clearings and snow-covered trees and paths might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but maybe that's just me.

The first person Kivrin meets in 1348 (or 1320, as she thinks it is) is Father Roche, the simple but kindly and compassionate parish priest, whom Kivrin assumes for several chapters is a 'cut-throat' who wishes to harm her, for no reason that I could fathom except that somehow he has a face that makes him look like a cut-throat. 'Cut-throat', like 'the drop' and 'slippage', is a word that appears approximately 1,754 times throughout the novel, or at least that's what it feels like. Actually, when we get to meet him properly, Father Roche is a very well-drawn and sympathetic character. In one scene, Kivrin wanders into the church and hears him chatting to God, as though God is his friend, telling Him all about the villagers and what they're doing and how their health is. I thought that was lovely. The other main characters are Eliwys, a young noblewoman, her daughters Rosamund and Agnes, her mother-in-law Imeyne, their servant Maisry, and Gawyn, the man-servant of Eliwys's absent husband Guillaume. We also meet some of the villagers who live near the manor-house, envoys from the bishop, and Sir Bloet, the elderly future husband of Rosamund, and several members of his family.

Once the Black Death arrives in the village, just after Christmas 1348 - when Kivrin finally, 386 pages into a 578-page book, realises what year she's in - Doomsday Book packs a real emotional punch. Let's just say that Connie Willis isn't afraid to kill off her characters, and it's incredibly moving. Near the end of the novel, two people come through from the future to rescue Kivrin, and come across a black horse in the wood. Although they have no way of knowing it, the horse belongs to Gawyn, who rides off to fetch Sir Guillaume and never comes home. Eliwys, who loves Gawyn and is waiting for him, dies without ever seeing him again, without knowing that he fell from his horse and died just a couple of miles from home. At this stage in the novel, I am in absolute floods, and just thinking about it now makes me want to howl with grief. Then we have the villager who goes mad when he has to bury all five of his children and digs himself into their grave, and freezes to death there. Father Roche, who seems to be well enough to travel away from the village with Kivrin, but suddenly begins hallucinating and turns out to have a massive bubo in his groin, and who thinks that Kivrin is a saint come from heaven to save him. Little Agnes, who dies screaming for Kivrin to come, although Kivrin is right next to her. Ohhhh God. It really brings home the horror of what the Black Death must have been like, as we watch the characters we've got to know suffer and die and Kivrin's utter helplessness and hopelessness as she tries to do what she can for them. The last few chapters of the novel are so moving they almost make me forgive all the endless irritations up to that point.

Doomsday Book would have been an absolutely fantastic novel without the disconcertingly old-fashioned and almost entirely pointless future scenes, and if Kivrin had been a more proactive heroine who didn't have to spend half her scenes feverish in bed and most of the rest fretting about 'the drop'. There's a brilliant story here, unfortunately surrounded by about 500 pages of filler. 


Anerje said...

Hmmmm - think I'll give this one a miss - sounds awful!

Kathryn Warner said...

I did thoroughly enjoy the last few medieval chapters, to be fair, but yeah, there's an awful lot of filler before you get to the good bit!

mnbookcritic said...

Despite all of that I love the book and have read it several times happily suspending disbelief each time. I like the characters - overall - but in the future sections I don't try to apply too much logic. I just enjoy the quirky people. Dunworthy, for some reason reminds me of a Muppet.

I do often notice in old TV shows (mostly police dramas) how handy it would be for the characters to have cell phones. But I generally ignore it in early science fiction. Think how useful a cell phone would have been in all the classic Doctor Who episodes!

sami parkkonen said...

Yes, the future is always a bit of problematic in movies and books and such. I guess the only writer who got anything right was Jules Verne and he was way off in many many things.

As for the medieval vista: for some reason many movie makers and writers believe that everything was dirty and rags and semi-rotten back then. I guess it somehow fits the basic idea that we have it much better or that it must have been like in the poorest parts of the world in our times. Not so.

Yes, the poor and downtrodden, the outcasts and outsiders had it rough in medieval times, but everybody else was at least trying to live clean and decent life. In medieval times a foul smell was much more abhorred than in our times because it was believed that if you stank you were a bad person. Smelling bad enough and people might think that you were in cahoots with the devil. That was enough to make everybody to try at least.

As for the living conditions: I've seen a well made dirt floor. It was a smooth as any and so tightly packed that it resembled more of a stone floor than dirt. The cities were dirty and full of waste, simply because there was no waste management usually or it was too little and because too many people lived in too small area. The people who lived in the country had much more cleaner lives assuming they had access to water. Clothes were washed and boiled, houses were cleaned up everyday, and people washed in order to avoid being smelly. Those who had enough cash used smelling soaps and perfumes too.

In my historical novel Robin Hood set in the 1300's I try to describe this subject as it is part of the story and influences a lot to my main character and his destiny. Those who had nothing at all naturally had no decent clothes or means to stay clean but even the outcasts tried to take care of these things. In my other novel Idän viikingit, the Vikings of the East, I bring up the fact that among the finno-ugric people the sauna had been around for hundreds of years by then, the late 800's, so the clean body and clothes were as normal as they are in our times.

I wonder if the "dirty medieval times" image replaced the reality in the Victorian times when there was coal everywhere and coal dust etc. enough to blacken whole cities? Perhaps people who lived in the 1600's assumed that the previous times had been dirtier because their times were so horrible that the western perfume industry was born to cover just the smells in Sun Kings court?

I don't know how this image of dirty medieval life was born but it is not accurate. People did wash their clothes, bodies and tried to take care of themselves and their looks as much we do with the means they had at their disposal.