In this remarkable and moving book, Connie Willis describes two societies — our own modern world in the not-too-distant future, and the mediaeval world of the 14th century — as they respond to plague epidemics which threaten to destroy their very way of life. In the mid-21st century, time travel is the key to historians’ study of the past. Young Kivrin, an enthusiastic student of mediaeval history, is sent back to 14th century England. But a miscalculation in coordinates lands her in 1348, the year the Black Death reached Oxford, while back in 21st century Oxford, an influenza epidemic strikes the citizens. Kivrin finds herself serving the plague victims, while Mr. Dunworthy, her mentor back at the University, frantically tries to find a way to rescue her from this most dangerous of years.
The quality of story-craft in this book impressed me, as did the author’s insight into culture. Her portrayal of the near-future society was drawn with perceptiveness and wry humor: for instance, protestors making the epidemic a political issue. In this society, wives and husbands are not mentioned; instead, we hear of “live-ins”. Panicked citizens still flock to church services in their fear, but the ‘ecumenical’ service includes prayers and holy-writ readings from everything from Islam to Native American religions, and of course ridiculously “modern” translations of the Bible. Many of these aspects of the futuristic society are amusing, but at the same time they strike close to home! The reactions of the 14th and 21st century people to the plague are marvelously compared and contrasted — and some remarkable similarities come to light along with the many differences.
In her portrayal of the mediaeval world, the author drew me in and completely convinced me. I don’t know much about the details of this era in history, not being a historian myself, but Willis must have thoroughly researched her subject. The mediaeval world, in all its squalor and charm, comes alive through this book.
I rate this book in the ‘moral’ aspect with some difficulty. It’s more than a mixed bag; to me, anyway, it’s a bit of an enigma. None of the main characters are Christians, and most of them express at various times anger at a God whose existence they doubt. None of them come to any sort of faith or acceptance of God throughout the story; they remain disbelieving or angry to the end. But the author obviously appreciates the power of the Christian story, whether she herself believes it or not. The novel, in both its time periods, is set during the Christmas season. Christian imagery is used for artistic purposes throughout the book. Dunworthy thinks of Kivrin as a Christ-figure sent to the people of 1348 Oxford. Yet, his musings on Christ’s mission to earth are far from orthodox — he thinks of God the Father as like himself, frantically wishing he had not sent Christ to earth. ‘He never would have done it if he had known what would happen,’ he thinks. Most of the main characters conclude that God is helpless to stop the terrible things that are happening to the two societies.
Yet, aside from the book’s puzzling attitude toward Christianity — I honestly can’t figure out what the author herself thinks of it — the book contains beautiful portrayals of self-sacrifice and service of others. In both eras, people give their all to help others. And in the end we — and the characters — see that in spite of all, this self-sacrifice has had some good effect. Even so, I found the ending of the book quite depressing, and not very hopeful.
One other thing: I do give the author points for portraying an honest, self-sacrificing, faithful priest in the mediaeval world. Too often portrayals of mediaeval life are full of corrupt, evil “Christian” priests. It was refreshing to read about one who was truly admirable. There are, of course, plenty of examples of pretentious, obnoxious “pious” people to counterbalance this, though.
Content note: This book contains graphic descriptions of plague symptoms, which make it too disturbing for children.