If you think jet lag is a pain, you should try time-lag. Historian Ned Henry is battling a wicked case of it, thanks to his multiple trips to the 1940s in search of information on the Bishop’s Bird Stump, an artifact once housed in Coventry Cathedral but missing since the bombing of the cathedral during the Blitz. The imperious Lady Schrapnell who is funding the rebuilding of the cathedral in 2057 will not let Ned or his fellow historians rest until they’ve made the restoration perfect—time-lag be damned!
When Ned starts experiencing Disorientation, Exaggerated Nervousness, Slowness in Answering, and Difficulty in Distinguishing Sounds—all symptoms of advanced time-lag—his boss decides that enough is enough. He will send Ned away on holiday in a place where Lady Schrapnell will never find him, in Victorian England! All Ned will need to do when he’s there is help restore an object accidentally brought forward to 2057. It’s a simple task, but a vital one. Ordinarily, the system that historians like Ned use to travel through time won’t allow objects to be removed from their era because doing so could disrupt the space-time continuum. No one is sure why the system let this one object through, but it’s essential that it be returned before any serious damage is done.
However, there is a big problem. Ned, in making a quick exit to Victorian England, is too time-lagged to remember exactly what it is he’s supposed to be doing. What’s more, his quick tutorial in Victorian etiquette and culture doesn’t give him nearly enough information to navigate the tricky social mores of the time. Most of what he already knows seems to come directly from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Lucky for Ned, his early adventures put him on a boat on the Thames, where his little bit of background knowledge may come in handy—or not, if you’ve read the book and know how Jerome and his friends got on. Eventually, though, Ned ends up on shore where he has a whole new set of hilarious challenges—spiritualists, bric-a-brac, jumble sales, beruffled Victorian ladies, exotic fish, butlers, and croquet—to say nothing of the dog, and the cat!
Jenny has been after me to read Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog for years, and in fact I’ve owned a copy since 2007, which means that, in following my plan of reading all books I’ve owned for 4 or more years, I was determined to get to it this year. When Jenny added it to my list of must-reads in 2011, I decided to put it at the top of my list. And of course, Jenny was quite right that this is a perfect book for me. I cannot adequately express what fun I had reading it!
This book is just filled with the kinds of things that I enjoy. Besides all the elements mentioned above, there are also some wonderful shout-outs to Golden Age mysteries. (Ned’s fellow historian, Verity Kindle, specializes in the 1930s and seems to be a particular fan of Dorothy L. Sayers.) And oh I laughed so many times, often at little throwaway lines like this: “The reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.” Much fun is made of the Albert Memorial and elaborate Victorian decorative styles in general, but it’s affectionate fun, not mean-spirited. (Or at least that’s how I read it, given my own affection for Victorian fussiness, which I rather like a small doses but might not enjoy being surrounded by.)
Most of the characters are written as comic types, but they are so delightfully drawn that I ended up loving them all, even the ones that would be annoying to actually spend time with, like Tossie of the many ruffles and the baby talk (right out of a Wodehouse novel). And Cyril the bulldog is imbued with such personality that I wouldn’t mind having him around. But my favorite character had to be Princess Arjumand, a cat who operates according to her own rules, with little concern for what others expect of her. (In other words, a typical cat.) Cats are, I’m sorry to say, extinct in 2057, so Ned is mystified by Princess Arjumand’s behavior. His early efforts usually involve treating her like a dog—you can imagine how that goes. Hilarity! (Also, if I ever get another cat, I will definitely consider Princess Arjumand as a name—if not that then Penwiper.)
Willis also deserves commendation for her tight plotting. Time travel books obviously require careful plotting, with attention paid to how the characters’ actions in the past might affect the future. Willis has not two, but three time frames to juggle, and she handles them all well. What’s especially exciting about her efforts here is how deftly she works small details into the overall fabric of the plot; as Lady Schrapnell says repeatedly, God is in the details. Lots of running gags and seemingly isolated moments that appear to be added in for a bit of fun and flair end up paying off in unexpectedly significant ways. And then she also works in some musings about fate and individual agency. (Wow! That’s a lot of book in one book! But it never feels overstuffed.) Because Willis plays fair and plants lots of clues about what she’s up to, there were a few surprises that I saw coming, but there were plenty more that I didn’t. Mostly, I just marveled at her ability to put it all together. Now go read it, so you can marvel too!
Other blog reviews: Beth Fish Reads, Books I Done Read, Farm Lane Books, The Indextrious Reader, Stella Matutina, Things Mean a Lot, and conversation posts on Booklust and The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.