To Say Nothing of the Dog — Review by Chris

O! O! O! How I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog!

I'd give another screamlet, but I'm afraid it would be as baffling and off-putting to you as it was to Ned, the narrator and one of the central characters of Connie Willis' novel. Ned found himself faced with swooning, screamlets, punting on the Thames, feuding dons of Oxford, mediums, drowning cats and preg**** cats in Victorian England.

That is, once he managed to get out of Coventry, circa 1940.

Willis takes us back to Oxford in the mid-2000s, when Oxford has knowledge and use of time travel. Mr. Dunworthy is back, as is Finch (a Radar O'Reilly of the 21st century), whom we first met in The Doomsday Book. Also on the scene is the dynamic and demanding Lady Schrapnell, whose support of the program is a means to an end. She is rebuilding Coventry Cathedral, only one thing missing, the one thing important to her ancestor whose diary inspired her to take on the endeavor.

Ned Henry must find the bishop's bird stump or face the wrath of Lady Schrapnell. Going back in time to scour a smoldering cathedral, still simmering from the recent Nazi Blitz, isn't enough. Scouring jumble sales isn't enough. A dozen time leaps that frazzle his nerves and exhaust him beyond all reason is not. And when he is sent to the hospital and put on two weeks' mandatory rest, even he knows that's not enough to keep the indomitable Lady Schrapnell from conscripting him to another leap.

So he turns to the only person who can help him: Mr. Dunworthy, whom we first met in The Doomsday Book. Finch, however, rescues him from wandering about on a playing field and brings him to Mr. Dunworthy's office.

And there his life changes. Verity Kindle, another historian, storms out of Mr. Dunworthy's office, her red hair streaming behind her. In his time-lagged state (whose symptoms are absolutely hilarious, especially how they manifest themselves), Ned waxes romantic over her.

Only he hasn't the time. Mr. Dunworthy wants him to do one last "leap," to Victorian England, 1888, do one errand then sleep for the mandated two weeks.

If only it was that easy.

It seems a fellow historian has caused an incongruity, which Ned must help fix. The longer it goes un-mended, the worse the problem: slippage, locking out of the net, possibly the end of time, the universe and everything.

And that's not the worst of it.

Willis makes the story so fun and compelling to read. The description of the bishop's bird stump alone is worth the price of admission. I found excuses to steal a few minutes every day to try to get a few more pages under my belt. Let's just say my time on the stairclimber was too short because this book was too enjoyable.

Ned is surrounded by a comedy of errors. And apparently it gets worse when the time-traveling historians interference continues to influence the world of 1888. One person is supposed to meet someone whose last name begins with a "C" and there's no one of the sort in the area. Another is supposed to meet a future spouse on a train platform, only it never happens. Without these few circumstances, people aren't born, secret weapons are revealed and, well, the wrong world power wins the war.

There are a whole host of new characters who are endearing, unbelievable, quaint, charming, lovely, confusing and plain wonderful. Professor Peddick is obsessed with fate and fish. Colonel Mering doesn't bother to use subjects in his sentences. Terence is besotted by the vapid Tossie whose baby-talk makes even a cat-lover ill. Everyone is strong-armed by Mrs. Mering, who hasn't met a medium she hasn't liked and can "O!" and faint at the drop of a hat. Baine, the butler who was "stolen" from a neighbor, runs the house with a precision that would make the Marines seem slovenly. Colleen-cum-Jane, is the Irish, er, English maid. Madame Iritosky is a medium looking for opportunity. Then there's Princess Arjumand .... to say nothing of the dog.

Victorian England was complex but simple: they simply skirt language, issues and ideas that aren't "polite." The women are fragile, giving what Ned called screamlets, such as "O!" And the reader can hear just that. A reader could see and hear it all: the apparent vapidness, the focus on marrying well, the Colonel's obsession with exotic fish in his pond, Princess Arjumand's calm grooming after eating said fish, and Cyril's good-natured participation in the whole affair.

The title is a play on a famous comedy written by Jerome K. Jerome, which I started to read a couple of years ago and never finished. I think I will have to give Three Men in a Boat another try.

I am so sad that I missed the author's appearance at this year's Balticon 42, though I'm grateful that when I do see her, I'll have another book over which to gush when I have her sign them. (Rumor has it that she is returning to time travel in her next novel. I can't wait!)

You will enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog. It stands on its own as a fun frolic. It's light and fun, with a deeper idea underneath about fate and circumstance. If you don't get that part, still, you haven't missed a thing. It's still a blast, and a book you'll be glad you read.

1 comment:

Carole said...

This sounds like a great summer read--I'll add it to the pile I plan to tackle at the beach.

I just recently tried to read Three Men in a Boat--I usually love these iconic comic pieces of the day, but I couldn't get into. Maybe this will inspire me to try again too!