To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis, 1998

Connie Willis already has an impressive canon of work to her name, and any new work is always anticipated with pleasure. As well as a large number of superior short stories, covering a huge range of subjects and styles, she has also written four longer works. Her second, Doomsday Book, a time travel novel -- an intelligent and hauntinglook at England at the time of the Black Death -- is her most well-received novel to date, and was followed by Remake and Bellwether: both darkly comic modern science fiction. Her new, full-length novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a neat combination of the time-travel of Doomsday Book with the more comic style of the subsequent work. And it does not disappoint.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a twisted tale of time-travel. In 21st century Oxford, the time-travel department has been taken over by the indomitable Mrs Gaddeston who is attempting to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed during the Blitz in the second world war. Everything is almost complete... everything except for the whereabouts of the Bishop's Bird Stump: a hideous piece of Victoriana which was Mrs ?? inspiration, and which has not been seen since the cathedral was destroyed. Poor Ned Henry has developed 'time-lag' travelling through the 20th century looking for it, and, desparate for rest, is sent by Dunworthy back to Victorian Oxford.

Once there, Ned meets Terence, Cyril his bulldog and Professor Peddick and all go on a trip down the river Thames. There, they discuss history, meet two young ladies, fail to send a telegram, fall in the river, burst in on a seance, and Ned realises with the aid of fellow-time-traveller, the divine Verity that the time-line is in grave danger because of a cat... and the Bishop's Bird Stump. And a glorious chaos ensues as Ned and Verity attempt to mend the time-line: keeping Terence from Tossie, Princess Arjumand from drowning and a fake psychic from the rubies.

The plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog is convoluted and involving, with plenty of hints to encourage readers to speculate, and enough twists and turns to prove them wrong. It proceeds at a healthy pace, and is at turns charming and surprising.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is written in a fast, clear style. A clever, but not intimidating, feature of all of Willis' work is that the style reflects the subject matter. Here, the style is of a Victorian drama, and indeed there are references in the novel to Victorian novels like those of Wilkie Collins and Jerome K. Jerome (from whose novel, Three Men in a Boat the title is taken). The future sections also gel rather better with this style than in Doomsday Book, with less of a harsh contract between the two.

The characters in this novel are a delight: there is no real attempt at 'deep' characterisation or interpretation, or similar soul-searching, but then, that is clearly not the point of this work. Apart from Ned, the focus of the novel, most of the Victorian characters are rather characatures of Victoria society, but written with a delicacy which does not grate. Ned, himself, if suitably confused and more deeply written. All are charming, funny, real enough within the confines of the scope of the novel.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a superb, humorous piece of fiction. Above all, this novel is funny and accessible, but without descending to juvenile humour that so often plagues SF and fantasy. A joy.

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