REVIEW: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
I believe I’ve been hearing good things about To Say Nothing of the Dog for about as long as I’ve been a part of the online romance community. TSNotD is not a romance, but it does contain a dash of romance as well as enough of an historical setting (it’s a time-travel fantasy) to make it appealing to those of us who like to live in the past when reading. It’s also one of the most delightful books I’ve read in quite a while.
The book’s present time is Oxford, 2057. Time travel technology was developed years before, but the practice of time travel itself has fallen out of favor somewhat. It was quickly discovered that it was of limited use, except perhaps for historians eager to observe events up close, as the universe had natural corrections that it could and would enact in order to, say, keep one from going back in time to pick the winning lotto numbers or to kill Hitler. Due to a factor referred to as “slippage”, a traveler will inevitably be sent to the wrong time or place to prevent him or her from taking any action that could change the past in any substantive way.
The story opens in 1940 with Ned Henry, a time-traveling historian (and our narrator), sifting through the rubble of Coventry Cathedral, which has been bombed by the Luftwaffe. Ned is on the hunt for an object called “the bishop’s bird stump”, which I assumed was some sort of obscure Britishism that this American couldn’t understand. In fact the provenance of the name is explained late in the book, and the object itself operates as a sort of MacGuffin throughout the story.
Ned’s mission is at the behest of a holy terror named Lady Schrapnell. Lady Schrapnell is an enormously wealthy American-born aristocrat who is behind the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in the modern day (that is, in 2057). At some point in history the cathedral was razed in favor of a shopping mall. Its restoration is opposed by various groups, with many feeling that the enormous expense could be put to better use.
Lady Schrapnell is a perfectionist (to say the least) who has corralled the entirety of Oxford’s history department to aid in her quest to restore the cathedral to its former glory. Her motto is “God is in the details”, by which she means everything must be perfect for the consecration of the cathedral, coming up in a few weeks. Perfection in this case requires locating (somewhere in history) the bishop’s bird stump, which went missing after the bombing in 1940.
Ned, unfortunately, has made so many “drops” in the quest for this item (usually traveling back to attend innumerable jumble sales) that he is suffering from “time-lag”. Time-lag is a phenomenon that can develop after multiple drops without sufficient rest; it’s a bit similar to jet-lag. It leads to confusion, Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and a tendency towards maudlin behavior (“like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold-sober”). He’s sent back to 2057 from 1940 with orders to get some rest (which cannot be accomplished unless he can avoid Lady Schrapnell, who is single-minded and doesn’t care much about time-lagged historians). When a possible crisis crops up – another historian accidentally brings a cat back through from the Victorian era, a calamity that should not be possible because of those natural corrections that are supposed to occur – Ned is hastily recruited to try to help fix the problem. The idea is that he can bring the cat back to where it belongs and then rest (and hide from Lady Schrapnell) in Victorian times for a few days.
Unfortunately, because of the time-lag (and resultant exhaustion and Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds), Ned goes through the net (the time-travel apparatus) with a less-than-complete understanding of where he’s going, who he’s meeting, and what exactly he’s supposed to do. He arrives in 1888 Oxford only vaguely remembering that he’s supposed to meet someone at someplace called “something’s end”, but that doesn’t narrow it down a lot for him.
Luckily for Ned, he quickly encounters an Oxford student, Terence St. Trewes, who is hoping to row up the Thames with his trusty companion, a bulldog named Cyrill. Terence lacks the requisite funds to hire a boat; Ned provides them (with a thought that this will lead to his contact), and off the three of them go. They quickly pick up Terence’s instructor Professor Peddick, after first rescuing him from drowning. Peddick is the very picture of an absent-minded professor, obsessed with various species of fish and his feud with a fellow scholar over theories of history. Off they set for the promisingly-named Muching’s End, where Terence hopes to reunite with Miss Tossie Mering, a young woman with whom he’s become quite infatuated.
Tossie is a spoiled and empty-headed young lady who had traveled to Oxford with her mother for a seance (clairvoyance and seances being all the rage in the Victorian era) to try to locate her missing cat, Princess Arjumand. Yes, Princess Arjumand is the self-same cat that Ned has been sent back to return to its rightful time and place. And the time traveler who inadvertently brought Princess Arjumand through, Verity Kimble, has infiltrated the Mering family and is staying with them, posing as a cousin (this was one detail I didn’t understand – wouldn’t these people know who their cousin was? If there was ever an explanation for this detail, I must have missed it). Ned has thus found his contact (and become a bit infatuated himself with the beautiful and clever Verity).
Once ensconced in the Victoria era and the bosom of the Mering household, Princess Arjumand back in Tossie’s indulgent embrance, Ned and Verity should only have to concentrate on finding any evidence of the bishop’s bird stump (they might as well, since they’re there), but it’s not that simple. When Verity came through with the cat, “slippages” in time and place began to occur; these slippages are assumed to be the result of the unusual occurrence (the cat being brought through time). But Princess Arjumand has been returned, and the slippages continue to occur, even getting worse in some cases and stranding other historians in their locations. Ned and Verity try to figure out just why history hasn’t corrected itself, but that’s easier said than done.
I loved so much about this book – for one thing, the animals are awesome. They include: Cyrill, Terence’s bulldog and faithful companion (much disdained by Tossie and her mother); Princess Arjumand, the cat, whose unexpected time-traveling precipitates Ned’s trip back to Victorian times; the Merings’ neighbor’s cat, whose obvious pregnancy is too delicate a topic to broach around the several maiden daughters of the house, and even the various fish that Professor Peddick and Colonel Mering swoon over (burdened with colorful names such as albino gudgeon, these fish, alas, all too frequently fall prey to Princess Arjumand). To Say Nothing of the Dog is a great book for readers who like memorable animals in their stories.
The human characters in the story are pretty great too. Ned is a real mensch of a hero, and Verity is more than his match, sensible and smart with a sense of humor. Most of the other characters function to some degree as comic relief or foils for the main characters; Tossie is particularly entertaining. She is quite dumb, rather mean and spoiled and given to vomitously inane baby talk with Princess Arjumand (and I say this as a cat-lover and occasional-baby-talk-to-cat-talker). But she ends up getting a satisfying and reasonable – well, I won’t even say comeuppance, since she isn’t really punished. The book has a fairly gentle attitude towards the foibles of its characters. Let’s just say she matures a bit in the course of the story, in a way that’s funny rather than treacly.
I also really liked Baine, the Merings’ long-suffering butler who possesses the patience of a saint. (at one point Ned wonders if Baine is reading Marx, before remembering that Marx was still unpublished at this point in history).
For reasons too byzantine (and probably spoilery) to go into here, Ned and Verity spend a lot of time trying to break Terence and Tossie up, but as with most of their exertions in the book, what needs to happen tends to happen almost in spite of, rather than because of their efforts. This fits in with the overall theme of time correcting itself, which itself fits into the larger theme of predestination vs. free will. As always, the humans believe that they have more control over their circumstances than they actually have.
The chief virtue of the book is its humor, though. A few favorite quotes:
The reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.
“People will buy anything at jumble sales,’ I said. ‘At the Evacuated Children Charity Fair a woman bought a tree branch that had fallen on the table.”
“Come here, cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum, would you? Meow. Meow.”
I’ll confess to being a tad lost on occasion in the course of the story about the time-travel stuff, and even though the author does a good job of explaining things in the end (without being too exposition-y about it), I was still confused by who took the bishop’s bird-stump, when and why. But I blame myself here; one of the reasons I don’t read much sci-fi is that I tend to run around in circles trying to make sure that I understand what’s happening, when I should probably just let the story unfold and not worry about it. I’ll give To Say Nothing of the Dog a straight A.