This is the second Connie Willis book I’ve read, and it will not be the last. The phrase tour de force is thrown around with a distressing lack of discretion, but this book truly deserves it. In Doomsday Book, the author follows two main characters in two times: Kivrin is an enthusiastic young historian who travels to 14th century England for investigative purposes despite the warnings of Mr. Dunworthy, her tutor at Oxford and the main character we follow ‘back home’ in the 21st century. While Kivrin is meeting and learning to care for 14th century people, Mr. Dunworthy is trying to rescue her from what he has reason to believe is a dangerous situation while at the same time trying to navigate an epidemic that has broken out at home in Oxford. I’m not sure why I keep reading books about epidemics/pandemics now having experienced one, but here we are!
In each time period, sickness erupts which the characters must deal with and which threatens to derail their lives. The details of 14th century life are shown through Kivrin’s eyes, allowing us to experience them as an explorer or anthropologist rather than being dryly read out “manor houses in the 14th century were cold without glass in the windows.” The book is quite long, and there were times I was concerned enough about some of the characters that I wanted to skip to the end, but I’m glad I didn’t. The 14th century details were fascinating, as well as the sci fi aspects and how the author dealt with things such as how much language would have shifted. Kivrin has spent time studying middle English, only to find the pronunciations and usage are completely different from what modern people thought they were. Of course, this is fiction, but it’s a good point that when we study history, we’re making guesses based on limited data points that we may be completely misinterpreting.
Meanwhile, back in what is basically our time (2054), it’s funny to see technology such as video phones that the author imagined would be in use, but her imaginings are hampered by the technology of the times she wrote in (1992) – the video phones need to be hardwired, so a plot point is Mr. Dunworthy having to find someone to sit and wait in his room for a phone call! The other side of that is that having seen the development of RNA vaccines during Covid, one could imagine the rapid development of viral vaccines, referred to as analogues, in just a few days.
The last thing I want to talk about is Connie Willis’s characters. Each one is distinct and recognizable, with foibles and strengths. I feel like I know a Mary or a Dunworthy, I was once a Kivrin (so optimistic!), my heart ached for Rosemund and Agnes, I joined Dunworthy in cursing Gilchrist’s stupidity.