To Say Nothing of the Dog is not for those with short-attention spans. Though it eventually finds its way and becomes an absorbing, rollicking time travel story, the road there is bumpy and, even worse, frustratingly slow and irritating. For about 150 pages, almost a third of the book, Willis putters around with her narrative, allowing characters to waste time on sitcom-level miscommunications and incompetent decision-making. The book makes an impressive recovery, which explains and also justifies the high esteem it is held in among sci-fi fans and those who love time-travel stories.
Ned Henry is a historian at a future version of Oxford. Time travel has existed for decades, but after it was discovered that it was nearly impossible to change the past or to rob it of its treasures, the public lost interest and government funding dried up. The only way for academics to continue using it is to rely on the patronage of rich eccentrics. Henry and his co-worker work for Lady Schrapnell, who is obsessed with restoring a cathedral destroyed during a WWII bombing raid. She insists on every detail being absolutely perfect, so she funds multiple trips to the past for historians to observe the cathedral. After failing on his latest mission, to discover the whereabouts of something called a “bishop’s bird stump”, Henry needs to hide from Lady Schrapnell and recover from a terrible case of time-lag.
Ned is given his chance when a fellow historian, the beautiful Verity Kindle, somehow manages to do the impossible and bring a living thing back from the past. Ned is tasked with returning the creature to Victorian England, but his time-lag causes confusion and innumerable complications.
Eventually, Ned and Verity both wind up in the 1880s, where they realize that the temporary absence of one little animal has caused ripples throughout the timeline. Because they kept the right two people from encountering each other, Britain will be invaded instead of bombed by the Nazis, and lose the war.
As with any worthwhile time-travel narrative, the plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog is intensely complicated. Along the way there are multiple love stories, a satire of academia, a comedy of manners, a classic mystery story, and more.