Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

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Book Information  
AuthorConnie Willis
TitleDoomsday Book
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by David Norman 
(Mar 08, 2007)

DOOMESDAY BOOK. by Connie Willis.

Kivrin is transported back in time. She is part of a bizarre group of scientists. The aim to gather information on a certain period of time in the Middle Ages. The project is almost successful. Kivrin finds herself surrounded by a bleak and harsh snow covered English landscape. The only problem being, there has been a slight miscalculation on the time element. Yes, she is in the Middle Ages, but several years forward of the selected year. She is about to witness the Black Death.

The part of the book that so impressed itself upon me, is the dynamic description offered by the author on the surroundings, that Kivrin finds herself in. I could sense the utter silence, the brightness of the stars, the bitter taste of the cold. The smoky interior of the house that she finds herself a guest in. The bleak day to day routine of the inhabitants. Their continual battle for survival against starvation, the elements, the constant fear of illness. Their lives, so much a part of the local Church.

I found the first part of the book, had a direct bearing on the actual time spent by Kivrin in the Middle Ages. During the first chapters, the characters are aware that it is Christmas, that there is a cold and flu epidemic, that the sound of the Church bells heralds the approach of Christmas.

These same concepts play a much more vital part during the part of the book, where Kivrin is actually living in the Middle Ages. Instead of colds and flu, there is ongoingthreat of the Plague. Where the Church is merely a backdrop during the first part of the book, it is here, when Kivrin is part of the Middle Ages, that it proves to be the centre of not just the local ihabitants, but also her own daily struggle for survival.Father Roche is assuming just as an important place in her life, as those of the local Villagers.

I have read DOOMESDAY BOOK twice. Even now, I can almost feel that I have myself been transported back into that place in history. Such is the skill displayed by the author with her considerable descriptive talents, that it has provided me with a lasting memory. Have I really been to that part and time, in history? I have only got to turn to a page, in this novel, and glance at the date - 1320 - and answer yes, while reading this book, I was there.

Submitted by colin epton 
(Sep 06, 2005)

One of the finest time travel books I have ever read.
Doomsday Book begins in Oxford in a future where time travel is used for historical research. The acting head of the history department, Gilchrist, is determined to take the opportunity presented by the abscence of his superior to send a student back to the 1300s, a century that has been 'closed' to researchers as being too dangerous. In spite of the protests of history tutor James Dunworthy, the student, Kivrin, is determined to go ahead and is sent back to christmas 1320. Dunworthy's concerns for her saftey are multiplied after a technician falls ill and he cannot get a fix on Kivrin's temporal location. As a mysterious virus sweeps through 21st century Oxford and Dunworthy becomes more and more convinced that she has been sent to the wrong time, Kivrin begins to hear rumours of a terrible sickness sweeping across medeival England.

The book has some delightfully well drawn characters, Dunworthy and Gilchrist are very like some academics I have met, Kivrin, struggling to come to terms with a 14th century reality that no amount of study could prepare her for, becomes less of a detached observer as she gets to know the the family who have taken her in. The medieval characters are not just background for Kivrin's adventures but real people with their own lives, hopes and fears.

There are some wonderful descriptive passages as well, I particularly enjoyed Kivrin's description of the christmas mass with all its medeival sense of wonder and superstition, which is then contrasted with the flashy decorations and cynicisim of chistmas in the Oxford of her own time.

This is a book about two very different societies, about how each responds to an approaching crisis and how society in the 21st century can find itself just as helpless in the face of a natural disaster as society in the 14th. But above all it is about people,
about the timelessness of human nature and the human spirit.

Submitted by Jeff Palermo
(Dec 09, 1999)

The Doomsday book promises, by its provocative cover blurb "to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit." What it does, rather, is explore the many limitations and cheap devices of a mediocre novelist and her apparent lack of editor: an ageless problem in itself.

Ms. Willis' gives us a convoluted plot complete with such afternoon soap-opera devices such as characters uttering cryptic words as they fall in and out of consciousness ("there's something wrong with ..." and then he passed out) and flat cartoon charaters such as Gilchrist and Mrs. Gaddson that are not funny, as intended, but ludicrous and simply tiresome. If I have judged the tone of the book correctly, she seems to be purposefully (having not read her other works) writing in an old English drawing room style. Experiment or no, the narrative is cluttered with page after page of micro-detailed reflection and pointless action. Characters weigh every possible action again and again, from choice of umbrella to Christmas wrapping, leading one to feel a bit resentful of Ms. Willis' lack of respect for the average memory of her readers. The book is filled with main and side
characters that have little depth or purpose other than to populate Ms. Willis' world. Her endless descriptions of Kivrin's observations in the manor house and Dunworthy's myriad choices feel forced and padded. Lacking a sound prose style or a gift for insightful description, these winding narratives simply test the patience of the reader.

When one finally beaches oneself on the last few hundred pages, one is treated to an in-depth viewing of plague victims slowly and horribly dying and a ridiculous rescue mission complete with man who takes along insistant youth (Did anyone really buy Dunworthy taking Colin with him?) At
that point, we are supposed to care enough about these people to sympathize with the horror of their disintegration but since we have been supplied with narrative lacking solid characterization, it simply turns into melodrama and ultimately, to a false ending full of holes and completely
unsatisfying (if she goes back with Dunworthy, how do they find her recorder?).

There are one or two interesting ideas, such as the problems of her translator with dialects and the well-researched (I imagine) social roles of the time but these ideas could just as well have been part of a very sucessful short story.

The Doomsday Book could have been edited considerably for poor sentence structure and obvious padding but even in the hands of a surer novelist it would have made a fair diversion at best. A poorly written, over-praised book
that should be avoided ... like the plague.

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