Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How we found the bishop's bird stump at last
by Connie Willis
Random House, 1998
448 pages

There's a lot I want to say about this book, but unfortunately the exhaustion of the past couple months is beginning to take a toll. I suspect reviews from now on may be a little [more] rambling, and I'm likely to forget important points, or harp on unimportant ones. This will clear up at some indeterminate point in the future.

It also doesn't help the rambling that I adored this book, and find it hard to be at all objective. One of my favourite reads of the year, certainly, and possibly ever. I would like to have this book's kittens. This sort of thing often leads to a rather poor review from me at the best of times, as I try to rein in my "aaljkbkjabhlksdfa LOOOOOVE BOOK" incoherent gabbling and try to elucidate what actually made me enjoy the book that much.

I have wanted to read it for a long time, and it's always such a pleasant feeling to realize that a book one has anticipated for literally years actually lives up to its reputation. This is a clever, sweet, intelligent, funny, vivid romp through the idea of time travel, the meaning of history, the love of literature, and Victorian high society.

Plus, cats. And dogs. And physics.
It [the cat] had been put into a box in Shrödinger's thought experiment, along with a doomsday device: a bottle of cyanide gas, a hammer hooked to a Geiger counter, and a chunk of uranium. If the uranium emitted an electron, it would trigger the hammer which would break the bottle. That would release the gas that would kill the cat that lived in the box that Schrödinger built.

Actually, this was one thing, perhaps minor but indicative of the quality and care taken in the details and characters of the story, not to mention the overall writing: there are animal characters, who do not speak, who are given fair treatment in the story. They don't get lost; Willis doesn't introduce them as a gimmick and then get tired of them (see, for example, Hedwig).

This could be partially because Ned Henry, our first-person narrator and protagonist, loves animals. It is an excellent case of showing and not telling, frankly: Ned never comes out and says "I happen to really like dogs." One just picked that up pretty quickly from the way Ned treats and enjoys Cyril, our canine companion.

So, before I go too much further: Ned Henry is an historian. Historians, in Willis' near future, are not dusty (or even animated) academics; they're time travellers, sent via "the net" back in time to observe history first-hand. However, the fact-finding, observational aspects of the historians of Oxford's jobs have been tossed by the wayside in favour of an all-consuming rebuild of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the Blitz in the 1940s. A certain Lady Schrapnell has commissioned the entirety the time travel department to ensure that every single detail of the reconstruction is exactly as it was the hour of the bombing; if the historians help her out, she will donate a considerable sum to the university, which will allow them to continue and expand their research. Ned's duty in this is to find out if the bishop's bird stump was in the cathedral during the bombing, and track it down in the present day. Easier said than done, as the bird stump appears to have disappeared improbably at some point during the bombing.

So... this is how the book starts out. This isn't really what the book is about, although it is certainly about the search for the bishop's bird stump. The truth is, what the book is about, and what happens, is far too complex to summarize in a review like this. So, I'm not going to try further; you'll just have to read the book yourself.

I had, for fun and because I knew I was going to read this book eventually, read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat; I think it added to the experience of reading this one, but certainly wasn't necessary. Ned's excitement at being in the era when that book was written is infectious and instantly recognizeable to anyone who loves a particular book. There is something wonderful about exploring a place where a favourite book is set. Ned just happens to get to both the place and the time. Other literary references, particularly to classic mystery novels, are peppered throughout the book; Dorothy Sayers in particular gets plenty of time. This was the last straw for me -- I've now finally read Sayers too, thanks to To Say Nothing of the Dog reminding me that I really have wanted to for a while. The way the literature plays in to the plot is along the same lines as the animals above; it's not mentioned and then dropped, but has weight throughout.

Willis' writing is sharp, funny, and artful without being self-conscious or twee. One gets the impression that she really quite enjoyed writing this book, that she had fun with the ideas and characters and the tangled threads she created. It makes for an effortless, entertaining read that still has heft, which is a rare and precious thing.

Highly recommended, in case that wasn't obvious already.

6 comments:

Aarti said...

I loved this one, too, and I agree reading Three Men in a Boat was a great way to ramp up to this one. I want to read much more Connie Willis :-)

kiirstin said...

Yes, I think I have Bellwether on my list for my next Willis? I love the way I could completely disappear into the world, and still appreciate the writing, if that makes sense.

Nan said...

I'm not much of a fantasy or science fiction fan, but I thought I'd like this just because of the Three Men in a Boat connection. I tried it many years ago and just couldn't get into it. As I read your review I looked up what in the world a bishop's bird stump was. I think I got caught in details like that and couldn't go on. But I've remained intrigued over these years, and will try it again. Your enthusiasm is contagious! Thank you, Kiirstin.

kiirstin said...

Nan, I do think that as a longtime reader of scifi and fantasy I tend to be pretty patient with details and waiting to see what the heck people are talking about in books. I have a pretty healthy suspension-of-disbelief engine ;)

I started this one once and put it down a couple of times, too. I think maybe the first chapter or so is a little challenging, but once you get into it you might find it goes faster and easier.

Anonymous said...

Just began reading this book, had no idea what a bird stump was! Have found out now.

kiirstin said...

Ha! I didn't know either, when I started. One of those little details that made the experience that much better, I think. Hope you enjoy!