I love time travel plots in novels, so my husband gave me a modern classic time travel book for Christmas last year: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (published in 1998). While it has all the elements I love about time travel – considering how small changes might affect the future and thought-provoking, twisty cause-and-effect – it also has broad appeal as a well-written novel set mainly in Victorian England with a great sense of humor.
The main characters all live in the near future, where time travel has been developed, though they travel to all sorts of points in the past. They are part of a team at Oxford that has been investigating and perfecting time travel. To raise funds for their research, they have taken on a donor, Lady Schrapnell, who is quite overbearing. Her personal project is to rebuild and recreate – to the tiniest detail – Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during Nazi bombing in WWII. All the team’s resources are tied up in traveling back to before the bombing and trying to make sure every detail of the cathedral is accurate. In particular, she has become obsessed with something called the bishop’s bird stump (which I thought was a Briticism I didn’t understand, but it is later explained in the book!).
Ned Henry is one of the time travel team members caught in the middle of this mess. As the novel opens, he is combing through Coventry Cathedral the day after the bombing, in 1940, along with several of his team members, trying to fit in with the contemporaries (or contemps, as they’re called), and searching for the mysterious bishop’s bird stump while pretending to help clear rubble. He starts to get confused and babble a bit, and the next thing he knows, he is back in their laboratory in modern-day Oxford. A nurse tells him he has advanced time lag, a condition resulting from too many time travel trips in a short period of time and characterized by exhaustion and confusion.
Long before Ned has a change to recover, he is hurriedly sent off on another mission, barely understanding what his purpose is. His boss tells him he can quickly take care of a problem in Victorian England and then rest there for a coupe of weeks, safe from Lady Schrapnell’s demands. So, suddenly Ned is at a train station in the Victorian countryside, dressed for boating on the Thames. He soon meets up with a young Oxford student named Terence and is rowing down the Thames with him.
Then things get a little complicated! They rescue a drowning Oxford professor who is fascinated by fish, Terence falls in love with the wrong woman, and Ned follows along, still unsure of exactly what he’s supposed to be doing but feeling quite sure this isn’t it. And that’s just in the first 3 chapters! Before long, Ned meets up with a fellow time traveler and discovers that she brought something back to their own time by mistake (something that isn’t supposed to be possible), and the two of them need to set things right. By now, though, Ned has caused a lot more to go off its intended path through time, so they have their work cut out for them.
I would describe this novel as a time travel farce (perhaps a new genre?), as each thing they try to do to correct the inadvertent change to the past causes many more problems, in a cascade of hilarious causes and effects. Through it all, they have no idea how all these changes might affect the future, so they keep trying to put things right. It’s a comedy of errors!
This is a completely unique mix of history, chaos theory, literary references, and Victorian life, with a hefty dose of humor. Although there are explanations of the complications of time travel, the novel never takes itself too seriously, and Ned and his time-traveling partner encounter priests and mediums, play croquet on the lawn, and learn of the advent of the jumble sale. It is absolute fun from start to finish, both for time travel enthusiasts like me and for those who just enjoy a good story and a sense of humor. Now that I’ve discovered her, I’m looking forward to reading more of Willis’ novels.
493 pages, Bantam Books