To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
Hardcover, 544 pages
Published by Bantam Books
Publication date: December 1, 1997
Review by Jim Mann
Connie Willis' Doomsday Book is one of the best novels of the last 10 years. It tells the story of a young woman trapped in the past in England, during the Plague. Her new novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog (hereafter simply called TSNOTD), is set in the same time-traveling universe (and even features a character from Doomsday Book), but it's a very different type of book. It's a charming, delightful book. Though much lighter than Doomsday Book, it's a major novel in its own right.
On one level, TSNOTD is a direct descendent of Jerome K. Jerome's marvelous Three Men in a Boat (whose subtitle becomes the title of Willis' novel). The style, the tone, and even the way in which the novel sidetracks from time to time are very much in the spirit of Jerome. In the present day of the novel (in the next century), a rich Britisher (Lady Schrapnell) is trying to restore Coventry cathedral (destroyed in the blitz in World War II). She is rich enough to send out teams of time travelers to try to determine details about the cathedral: she wants things to be 100% authentic. Only one thing is missing: the Bishop's bird stump (an overdone, garrish vase). A number of time travelers, including the main character (Ned) have been sent back to look for it.
At the novel's start, Ned has traveled into the past so many times in such a short span (mostly to look at jumble sales the British equivalent of yard sales) that he is time lagged (a state in which he is somewhat confused and Unable to Distinguish Sounds). Meanwhile, Verity, returning from the late 1800s, has done something that is supposed to be impossible and could cause a disaster: she has brought a cat back with her. Ned is given 2 weeks of R&R in Victorian England, with his only assignment to return the cat.
What follows is a delightful trip down the Thames (in which Ned and his companion to say nothing off the dog even encounter Jerome, George, and Harris to say nothing of Montmorecy, their dog), filled with touches of Jerome, Wodehouse, and, at times, Sayers, all wrapped up and sprinkled with doses of screwball comedy movies. As Ned and Verity try to set things right, things instead seem to get worse.
On another level, this is a wonderful time travel story of the "it's really, really hard to change the past" school of time travel stories (of which Fritz Leiber wrote several great stories). In fact, Willis produces one of the most wonderfully complex and convoluted examples of the universe writing itself that I've ever seen.
As I noted earlier, this is a wonderful book. If it were a 1997 book, it would be my choice for the Hugo. As it is, it will be on my 1998 Hugo list.
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