A weeks days back I read Connie Willis’ enjoyable novella ‘Fire Watch’ and I was inspired to pick up another of her time-travel stories. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a book I have seen pop up on various Goodreads lists, lauded as a classic of the genre, but I have never really gotten around to actually reading the thing. It is a occasionally frustrating novel, but clever, and somehow manages to incorporate Agatha Christie, hideous works of art, spiritualism, cathedral building, cats and dogs, and romance. It is an entertaining homage to to classic crime novels, victorian comedies and brings up some pretty big questions about what shapes history. Is it us small individuals or forces outside ourselves that we can never really understand?
Ned Henry is a historian in Oxford in 2050s, working in the time-travel department to study the mysteries and fascinating events of English history live! At the moment though this proud institution has been cowed into performing tiresome tasks like measuring rib-vaults and procuring table cloths. All on the orders from the wealthy, determined and aptly named Lady Shrapnel. She is paying this proud institution to help her rebuild a cathedral, in which her ancestor, Tossie, had some sort of life-changing experience. Ned is a perfectly amiable young man, with a healthy sense of humor, and is unafraid of what non-historians might hesitate to do, such as running into a burning building or travel to perilous times like the Blitz. But he too lives in terror of Lady Shrapnel. His task is to search countless bomb sites and jumble sales for the Bishop’s bird stump. He has to retrieve the original figure as the craftsmen of the 2050s Oxford refuse to recreate it on moral grounds (apparently it is the most repellant piece of Victorian art ever made). Due to all of his jumps into the pass, Ned has developed a serious case of time lag, symptoms of which includes disorientation, difficulty distinguishing sounds, inability to make logic reasonings and a sentimentality of ‘an irishman in his cups, or a Victorian poet cold-sober’.
In order to escape the clutches of the formidable Lady Shrapnel, Ned is sent to recuperate for a few weeks in 1880s Oxfordshire. A calming trip on a boat down the Themes in an idyllic, innocent and tranquil Victorian summer, what could be more relaxing? Pretty much anything really. Turns out, Ned’s fellow historian, Verity, has made a potentially end-time-and-reality-big mistake. On commission from Lady Shrapnel, she has been observing Tossie during the summer of 1888, when the spoilt, empty-headed girl has her life changing experience. But Verity finds herself bringing Tossie’s cat with her into the future. That might not sound like much, but that cat was intended to have drowned, and now all of the space-time continuum is endangered! In order to prevent an unimaginable catastrophe, Ned and Verity must get history back on track. By getting the cat back, impersonating Victorians, ensuring Tossie has her life changing experience (whatever it may be), attending some horrible tea-parties, solve the mystery of the Bishop’s bird stump and making sure Tossie marries the man she is intended to marry (if only they knew who it was). To say nothing of the dog!
Ned is a likable point-of-view character (he is the sort of person that asks the important questions in life, like ‘How can you be in love with someone who hates your dog?’). However, it is the supporting cast that makes this story good. We have already mentioned Tossie, the perfect parody of the nice Victorian girl, but we have also have Terrence, the love-sick, earnest, chronic poetry lover, canine fan and undergraduate. And do not forget the Tossie’s mother, the easily duped spiritualist and quintessential Victorian prude and Mr. Bain, the shady but hardworking butler. And who are the shapers of history? Willis certainly leaves you with the impression that forceful Lady Shrapnel could stop WWII with a flick of the hand, if she took the fancy.
Connie Willis is an American, but a self-professed Anglophile, and perfectly captures that oh so English sense of humour – filled with self-deprecation, irony and a sort of elegant absentmindedness. If you like a good turn of phrase you will really enjoy this book.
Infirmary nurses usually resemble something out of the Spanish Inquisition, but this one had an almost kindly face, the sort an assistant torturer… might haveOne 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.
I really noticed that this book was written in the 80s. Not in a bad way, but it is very clear when you are presented with Willis’ vision of the 2050s, that we humans struggle to imagine a world that words differently from our own. For example, mobile phones or internet do not seem to be around in time-travel department in Oxford and consequently people spend a lot of time running around looking for each other and digging up books and journals from library stacks. It is charming, and I bet our own contemporary visions of the future will seem just as quant in thirty years.
Willis’ method for keeping the suspense can be rather annying. Constantky frustrated communication. Conversations that keep being interrupted or people being time-lagged. At some points you just think that we do not need to be kept in suspense constantly – the plot does not need it. At several points I found myself rage and cry ‘Will they ever get to the point!!’. Really, the supposed helper, cliff-hangers, does more damage than good in this book. I had the same problem Willis’ Blackout and All Clear, in which every single chapter (I kid you not!) ended with a cliff-hanger solved in the very nest sentence of the next chapter. It just gets in the way. And sadly, that is the main reason for why I cannot give the otherwise excellent book four stars.