If you are a fan of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) or PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels, this novel is sure to please. Willis is a well known and “decorated” sci-fi author, having won multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards. She discovered JKJ through reading Robert Heinlein and gives him a tip of the hat in an amusing, clever and thoughtful work that combines time travel, mystery, and comedy of manners.
It’s 2057 London and Ned Henry, an Oxford Historian and seasoned time traveler, is on a special mission. Lady Schrapnell is determined to rebuild Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before being bombed by the Nazis in 1940. Lady Schrapnell is an extraordinarily wealthy woman who happens to be financing the university’s studies on temporal theory, and in return she requires that its historians and temporal theorists assist her in tracking down every item that was in the cathedral on the day of its destruction. This frequently requires that they travel back in time to see what was there and might have survived the bombing. One item in particular, the Bishop’s Bird Stump, has been difficult to track down. When we meet Ned, he is on site at Coventry Cathedral shortly after the November 1940 bombing, going through rubble and unable to find the artifact. The “new” cathedral is due for consecration in two short weeks, and Lady Schrapnell is running everyone ragged to make sure all is in place. Ned is in desperate need of rest due to “time lag” from his too frequent trips to the past. Meanwhile, a fellow time traveler, the lovely Verity, has returned from visiting Lady Schrapnell’s ancestors in the Victorian Era, but she has returned with a cat. Cats are extinct in 2057 London, and bringing items back from the past is supposed to be impossible. Their boss, Dunworthy, and his assistants Finch, TJ and Warder, are concerned that some sort of incongruity has occurred and that history could be changed as a result. Agents are experiencing difficulty traveling back and forth through time and increasingly are landing in the wrong places and times. Dunworthy hopes to correct the problem by sending Ned to Victorian England with the cat, thereby restoring equilibrium and allowing Ned a little vacation time. Instead, it seems that a chain reaction of unfortunate events might have been unleashed. It’s up to Ned, Verity and the team at Oxford 2057 to get things put right and find that Bishop’s Bird Stump!
The real fun of this novel starts when Ned visits the Victorian Era and the homage to Jerome K. Jerome begins. When he lands, he meets an Oxford student named Terence who is set to take a boat trip down the Thames with his pal Cyril in a quest to meet up with an “angel” named Tossie Mering. Cyril is a dog, by the way, and Terence hopes to help Tossie find her missing cat Princess Arjumand. Along the way, they pick up the dottie Oxford Historian Professor Peddick who has strong feelings about fish and about the importance of the individual in history as opposed to impersonal forces. The three men and dog have some hilarious adventures before reaching Muchings End, where the Merings reside along with “cousin Verity.” Verity and Ned discover that they must help set right other events, making sure that Terence and Tossie don’t marry each other and that they meet their intended spouses. This won’t be easy, but it will be funny, with servant troubles, seances, and the invention of the church “jumble” sale as part of the plot.
When I started reading, I was a little disappointed that Willis’ humor wasn’t as sharp and snarky as Jerome’s or Wodehouse’s (or Sebastian Faulks’). Humor is there, but it tends to be of a gentler variety. Still it is very much in the same witty vein.
One of the first symptoms of time-lag is a tendency to maudlin sentimentality, like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold sober.
“‘ Tossie and I are meant to be together, and no obstacle can keep us apart. It’s fated, like Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard.’
I didn’t point out that all of the aforementioned had ended up dead or severely handicapped.”
But the novel really shines for me because of the complex threads drawn together (temporal theory, historical theory, and good old fashioned sleuthing) to create an immensely entertaining story. It’s good fun, and you might learn a thing or two along the way.