To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis

Morality: B
Writing: B+

To Say Nothing of the Dog opens in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, right after it’s been bombed in the blitz. The hero, a time-travelling historian called Ned Henry, is in an advanced state of time-lag because he’s been jumping back and forth to look for an atrocity of Victorian art called “the Bishop’s Bird Stump,” so that he can take a description back to 2057 and get a replica made for the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral which is shortly to be opening in Oxford. The only cure is rest, but Ned can’t get any in 2057 because the fearsome Lady Schrapnell, sponsor of the rebuilt cathedral, is driving everyone to utter exhaustion.

The solution? Well, there’s a terrible need to get something back to 1888, so Ned is sent back to deliver the thing and then get some rest in Victorian England. The problem is that he’s so time-lagged, he can’t remember what he’s supposed to give to whom or why. By the time he does find out, he’s accidentally made Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor meet and fall in love with the wrong person. The plot spirals outwards from there, in a miracle of Byzantine complexity. There’s a time-travelling cat; a quack medium; a temporal discontinuity which may (or may not) cause the end of the world as we know it; several people falling in love, including Ned’s sudden attachment to his fellow historian Verity Kindle; and lurking behind it all, the nagging question of what really happened to the Bishop’s Bird Stump.

Besides being a delightful romp of a story, To Say Nothing of the Dog is pleasingly literate and well-written. Connie Willis has sprinkled it with references to Dorothy Sayers, Sherlock Holmes, Tennyson, the Titanic, Chaos Theory, and Jerome K. Jerome. There are also lovely turns of phrase such as Ned’s discovery that “the reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over”; or his remark that one of the symptoms of time-lag is “maudlin sentimentality, like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold sober.”

Most of the novel is–not quite fluffy–but light-hearted enough that it doesn’t really touch on any significant issues. At the end (which I won’t give away) there’s an affirmation of a design and purpose to the universe: not explicitly Christian, but certainly consonant with a Christian worldview. It isn’t deep, but then, it’s not trying to be.

Posted by Rose | April 23, 2003

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