by Connie Willis
Review by John Berlyne
Spectra Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553803198
Date: 02 February 2010 List Price £15.78 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Uncorrected Proof Copy: I'm still sure if this is scheduled to come out here in the UK, but this US proof of Connie Willis's new novel Blackout was my holiday reading this year. Willis has long been a favourite of mine and this, her first new novel since 2002, takes place in the same time-travelling worlds as her award winners Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. A limited edition will also be available from Subterranean Press. Reviewed this issue.
"The narrative opens in Oxford, England in 2060, where a trio of time traveling scholars prepares to depart for various corners of the Second World War. Their mission: to observe, from a "safe" vantage point, the day-to-day nature of life during a critical historical moment, As the action ranges from the evacuation of Dunkirk to the manor houses of rural England to the quotidian horrors of London during the Blitz, the objective nature of their roles gradually changes. Cut off from the safety net of the future and caught up in the "chaotic system" that is history, they are forced to participate, in unexpected ways, in the defining events of the era."
Blackout is Connie Willis's first novel for some years (the last being 2002's Passage, which I reviewed at the time) and it's a welcome return to the longer form for this much cherished genre jewel.
In Blackout we return to the mid 21st century where Willis's Oxford-based, time travelling historians are sent into the past to observe the various epic turning points of yesteryear. Having in previous works visited the time of the Black Death (Doomsday Book) and the Victorian Era (in the more overtly comic To Say Nothing of The Dog) Blackout, as the title clearly suggests, is firmly set in the darkest days of World War Two.
The novel centres on three main protagonists – all of whom are studying life in wartime Britain. Eileen O'Reilly is posing as a housekeeper in the country, observing the daily routines of young evacuees and of those charged with caring for them. Elsewhere, Michael Davies is undercover, complete with implanted American accent, as a Yank reporter there to witness the heroics at Dunkirk. Completing the trio is Polly Sebastian, experiencing first-hand the terrors of the Blitz whilst working as a shop girl in London's West End.
Willis interweaves these three narratives – plus one or two others which gel rather less successfully (there's a couple of scenes concerning inflatable dummy tanks used by the British to fool German reconnaissance – interesting factual background perhaps, but not really offering anything to the plot) and thus Blackout succeeds majestically in two trademark Willis ways. Firstly our cast of characters are entirely sympathetic and believable. Whether leading roles or background artists, Willis gives us people we care about. Deeply. The ever-present dangers they face, their courage under fire, their dignified heroism – all these facets are portrayed with an almost heart-rending veracity throughout. This is the foundation of excellent fiction and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better example. Secondly, there is no faulting the depth of the author's historical research. Throughout Blackout, Willis evokes a sense of both period and place that puts the reader in situ to the point that it feels very much as if it is we who are time travelling alongside the heroes of the book. We're crammed into shelters, crushed under wreckage, fired on by the Nazis, disrupted by the untimely appearance of troop transport trains, party to talk of ration books and nylon stockings and all, of course, set against the percussive crash and boom of the German bombs as they pound London. The whole experience is one of delicious detail expertly rendered.
This absolute backbone to Willis's novel, this keen, obsessive eye for rich detail is, ironically, also responsible for the main flaw in Blackout and it's a curious one that might only bother a select few readers. For all her experience and accuracy, all her talent for truthful characterisation, Connie Willis still falls into the idiomatic traps that await American authors attempting to write British characters. As George Bernard Shaw famously put it 'England and America are two countries separated by a common language.'
It is an inescapable universal fact (applying today just as it has done for perhaps centuries) that British characters of any class or social background simply would not use the word 'gotten'. Neither would they omit prepositions in their speech – preferring to write TO someone, rather than simply write them. They would not walk a couple of "blocks" – an architectural error this, as well as a semantic one, for any local will tell you that London is not a city that was built by any town planner. Such erroneous phrases as these litter the narrative of Blackout and each time one is encountered, a bomb is dropped on one's ability to suspend disbelief. Whether this is solely a fault of the author is hard to say – perhaps it is an editorial quibble, but either way it ought not to have been overlooked.
Cast this annoyance aside and one is left with a quite wonderful novel in Blackout. That it ends abruptly and without resolution is another annoyance – but one to be eased when the second 'half' of this saga entitled All Clear is released later in the year. By then, I hope the characters will have learned to speak correctly - if they can do so half as well as their creator can write, my guess is that they will be universally word perfect.