Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:


I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Author:  Barbara Tuchman
Title: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005. (Originally published in 1978)
ISBN: 9780786152940

Other Books Read by This Author: Practicing History, The Guns of August


The same historian who wrote an entire book – The Guns of August – about just one month in the First World War and found in it a microcosm of the war in its entirety goes an entirely different route in this book, taking on an entire century of an entire continent.  Not just any century, but a pretty rotten one.  The Fourteenth Century in Europe is marred by the Hundred Years War, Papal Schism, climate change (the Little Ice Age), the last Crusades, pillaging brigands, and if that wasn’t bad enough – the deadly pestilence.

With so much ground to cover this book delightfully veers off on numerous topics, kind of a cluttered attic of medieval facts.  Yet, Tuchman still manages to draw out one clear focal narrative and that is that the calamities of the 14th century sowed the seeds of the modern world.  Corruption in the church – from the warring popes down to local parish priests known for sleeping around and gambling during mass – lead to Reformation and the eventual downfall of Christendom.  100 years of warfare lead to increasing national identity for France and England that broke down feudal loyalties.  Peasant revolts eerily foreshadow the French Revolution. Death and disease destroyed ideas of hierarchy and order, whether from God or from wealth.

Tuchman centers the narrative on the life of French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, a 14th century Forrest Gump who happened to be at numerous pivotal events and had his life well-documented.  Also appearing in A Distant Mirror are John Wycliffe, Catherine of Siena, Geert Groote, and Charles VI whose monarchy would be marred by bouts of madness.  Fascinating events depicted include Christian movements like the Bretheren of the Common Life and Bretheren of the Free Spirit, The War of the Eight Saints, The Bals de Ardents, and the Battle of Nicopolis.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for over 20 years but was always intimidated by its length and the scary army of skeletons on the cover.  I’m glad that I finally plugged into an audio book adaptation and listened over a period of a couple of weeks.  Tuchman as always a crisp, detailed and entertaining writer (albeit a sometimes overly opinionated one).  This one will be worth reading again one day.  I find the whole period of time fascinating.

Rating: ****