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:

Summary/Review:

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

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 30: Oxford/Bath


I’d not intended to visit Oxford at all, but couldn’t turn down the free lodging, so I used it as my base to visit Bath and environs. That was the plan anyhow and on 19 February 1998 I took the train to Bath. Despite a late start, I had plenty of time to take in the sites. The city was a site in of itself with its stone Neoclassical architecture. I found myself slowing down just to take it all in.

I first visited the Roman Baths Museum, a place I wanted to visit ever since I read about it in my grandfather’s Reader’s Digest guide when I was a kid. The baths fulfilled my expectations and then some with it’s great archaeological and architectural wonders. Upstairs in the Victorian splendor of the Pump House I drank a glass of the Bath Spa water. It actually tasted pretty good, basically warm water with a strong mineral flavor. I actually felt quite peppy after imbibing it and headed out to tour the city of Bath.

I visited Bath Abbey with it’s West Front covered with carvings of angels ascending and descending ladders, one angel in a full nose dive. Then I walked by the Georgian architectural marvels of the Circus and the Royal Crescent. At the Bath Museum of Costume I enjoy an exhibit of waistcoats throughout the ages and see some I’d look good in (remember I was working at Colonial Williamsburg at the time), but 99.8% of the clothing on display were women’s garments, so there wasn’t much for me. In the adjacent Assembly Rooms I saw the familiar Allen Ramsay portraits of George III and Charlotte. The most beautiful sight of all in Bath is the Pulteney Bridge which doesn’t seem like a bridge at all when crossing it because it’s lined with shop fronts, but from the river one could see its graceful arches with water pouring through it into cascades.

Returning to Billy’s dorm room, I found a note from him telling me how awful my stuff smells. It was true that I had not had the opportunity to visit a laundromat for some time. Still I felt embarrassed and insulted. In retrospect, I overreacted and packed up all my stinky belongings and checked into Oxford Backpackers Hostel for the night. It was a bum ending to a good stay in Oxford.

Roman Baths

Newport the Otter prepares for a soak at the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Angels go up and down on the West Front of Bath Abbey.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 29: Liverpool/Oxford


I found the bloom falling off the blossom of the Embassie Hostel and the city of Liverpool on 18 February 1998. In the morning I couldn’t find a sink available to brush my teeth at, found the toaster eternally-in-use, and Argyle rambling on in an annoying fashion. So I just took off.

I visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum, one of the many great attractions on Liverpool’s Albert Dock. I enjoyed the exhibits of maritime history, customs agents, and art of the sea. Unfortunately, it was Half-Term (the British equivalent of Winter Break) and the museum was crowded with a gazillion children. This wasn’t bad in itself but between the kids and their children there was a lot of screaming, pushing, and downright obnoxious behavior. Out on the Dock itself I enjoyed a couple of buskers playing Beatles tunes on banjos.

I found more frustration in the crowded Lime Street Station where my train to Oxford departed an hour late. I went to Oxford on invitation from Billy, the American student I met in Kilkenny. I met Billy outside the porter’s gate of Magdalen College and he walked me through the quads and cloisters dating back to the 13th-century, then through a deer park, along a riverside path and finally to a door in a wall. Billy unlocked the door and on the other side it we were still outdoors. Billy was actually living in a modern residence hall set away from the main college.

Billy showed me a path to get in and out of the college without keys and went to work on a paper. I snuck out an found an Irish pub called The Elm Tree. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the last pub I’d visit on my holiday even though I would travel for 12 more days. It was a good one with an Irish trad session. The musicians often stopped playing to allow an individual to sing unaccompanied. I was impressed that everyone in the pub would stop talking and give their attention to the singer during these solos. I was also impressed by the group of men who took a double whiskey, poured it in a bowl of peanuts, set fire to it, and then ate the flaming peanuts. They offered me one but I was too pyrophobic to reach in and get one myself, so I settled for an extinguished one offered by one of the men.

After that I went out dancing all on my own at The Zodiac where an enthusiastic crowd enjoyed a 70’s/80’s night. I’d actually meant to go to the reggae club downstairs, but hey I was having a good time and feeling good about myself. I skipped back to Magdalen and conked out on Billy’s air matress. Not bad for my first night in town.

Banjo Beatles

Rockin’ to the Beatles on Banjo at Albert Dock.