Friday, March 19, 2010


Connie Willis's Blackout is my favorite book of the year. Here's why you should trust me.

In my thirties I greedily read every new book that came my way. It was like being drugged: I read award winners and runners-up; endless memoirs and biographies; and outstanding novels and nonfiction touted by trusted reviewers and online book groups.

Then I became incredibly picky and gave up reviewing gigs in favor of better-paid assignments. Books seemed to be getting worse. Was it the corporate publishing takeovers? It wasn't just I. A friend felt the same way. We decided, and this will sound vain, that we were such experienced readers that we perceived the flaws and the differences between vision and execution too readily. It was time to re-explore the classics. "It's kind of like getting back to the land," said my wry friend in her perpetually cynical New York accent.

But this week, the last of my vacation, I've been gobbling contemporary books as I did in the "old" days. Catching up on some of the best--John Banville and Brenda Peterson--has been a real pleasure. And among the new books I've read I have discovered a gem, a true classic (may it win many awards!), award-winning Connie Willis's beautifully-written literary novel, Blackout, which is part science fiction, part World War II novel. Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, probably the best critic out there these days, praised it so highly I went out and bought it. No regrets!

Willis's ostensible time-travel book reads as much like a compelling historical novel about World War II as it does science fiction. In 2060 Oxford historians travel back and forth in time; the main characters happen to be doing research on England in World War II. Her characters are unforgettable and their lives riveting, as they become more and more involved with the past: Eileen, a sensitive, responsible young woman, takes care of hoydenish evacuees in Lady Caroline's mansion and is quarantined for so many weeks when the children come down with measles that she somehow can't get back to 2060; Polly, determined to study Londoners' reactions to the Blitz, finds herself incredibly attached to the other people in the bomb shelter and to friends in a department store where she works; Mike is dropped miles away from Dover and ends up by accident at Dunkirk, where he believes he may have saved someone not intended to be saved and changed history; and Mary as an ambulance driver is uncertain whether she has been given the right times and days of bombings (so she won't be hit) or the false ones the government put out to fool the Germans.

Willis also pays homage to doors into other worlds and writers like C. S. Lewis and David Lindsay. Blackout begins almost like a Narnia book.

"Colin tried the door, but it was locked. The porter, Mr. Purdy, obviously hadn't known what he was talking about when he said Mr. Dunworthy had gone to Research."

There are a lot of locked doors in Blackout. After much research, many costume fittings, negotiations with Mr. Dunworthy, and implants that can give an American accent or provide instant access to dates and times of bombings, historians are dropped off at sites chosen because they are safe and will not, in any way, interfere with history. But there is an increasing problem with "slippage"--landing hours or days later than the target date, and/or in the wrong place--and Inevitably, things go wrong with the best-laid time travel plans. As characters find themselves trapped in the past, they agonize over the trajectory of history.

Willis is great, and I'm sorry I've never heard of her science fiction. Obviously I've missed out on one of the best writers of our time (no pun intended).

Dirda of the Washington Post said:

"If you're a science-fiction fan, you'll want to read this book by one of the most honored writers in the field (10 Hugos, six Nebulas); if you're interested in World War II, you should pick up "Blackout" for its you-are-there authenticity; and if you just like to read, you'll find here a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy."

A sequel is coming in October. I can hardly wait.


Danielle said...

I just picked this one up from the library and now can't wait to read it. I had not heard of her until I spotted this on their new books list and liked the sound of the WWII setting even though I don't really read sci fi (though am willing to try if the story appeals!). It's what made me pick up her To Say Nothing of the Dog, which in turn made me pick up Three Men in a Boat. So now I have come full circle and will read Blackout and I am so glad to hear you say you liked it (and Dirda, too!).

Frisbee said...

Danielle, I hope you like it! I'll read your post on To Say Nothing of the Dog again. It will mean more to me now that I know who Connie Willis is.

Danielle said...

Sorry--actually I would have read To Say Nothing of the Dog first, but when I realized she drew on the Jerome K Jerome book, I had to read that first. And by the time I did that here I have her newest, so will read this one first! But I am very much looking forward to her other one as well--it's another time travel novel though back to Victorian England with a few forays into the WWII era as well.

Frisbee said...

Danielle, I did go back after I commented and read your post and realize you were writing about Three Men in a Boat! That has been on my list forever and my husband finally did get around to reading it. He was lukewarm, and I gather from you it's fun but not perfect.

The new Connie Willis is so good I think you're wise to go with that.

Buried In Print said...

I loved, loved, loved To Say Nothing of the Dog and now am reminded that I should also read Doomsday Book and have a re-read of my favourite before I launch into Blackout: you certainly make it sound irresistible.

Mad Housewife said...

To Say Nothing of the Dog is now on my list as are all her other books. How could I not have known about this writer? Blackout is great.