Every now and then you read a novel that grips you by the throat and will not let you go until you finish it, leaving you sleep-deprived and breathless. Such an experience is often a case of instant gratification, but sometimes . . . sometimes if you’re really lucky, that novel will be so brilliant that it leaves a lasting impression and keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards (and probably forever).
This is the experience I had during the past week, when I read The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. That is to say, I inhaled all 600-odd pages of it and am now blown away by its awesomeness. (Obviously I’m not alone, because it won just about every SF award possible when it was published back in 1992.)
I am not going to say too much about the story, because I believe this is a novel that relies on not knowing what’s going to happen for maximum impact. (Some might argue that all novels rely on this, but I actually enjoy some novels more without the suspense.) But broadly, for those who like a starting point (and you know you have to read it now), it’s set in a near-future Oxford, where historians are using time travel to do ‘field trips’ back to their chosen area of history. This is a scenario that Willis has used a few times now, including in her 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which is also scooping all the awards this year.
In The Doomsday Book, a young undergraduate student drops back to the middle ages against advice and must deal with the terrible consequences, while in the modern world, her mentor strives to pull her out. . .
I downloaded this novel onto my kindle a few months ago upon recommendation, and was probably a little hesitant to commence reading because of the length. But I suddenly realised that Connie Willis is going to be at World Fantasy in a few weeks. . . and then I had an hour to kill between meetings last Thursday, so on a whim decided to give it a whirl (the paperback novel I was then reading being at home).
I knew fairly soon that I was hooked. After that second meeting, I read on the train on the way home. And then, at around dinner time that day, declared to the world that I was retiring to the couch with ‘a book’ for the rest of the evening. A couple of days passed and then on Sunday, I flicked on the kindle before getting out of bed. After about an hour, arrrgh! flat battery! I could only allow the time for the kindle to half-charge, but that was enough. . . Sunday afternoon and evening were consumed, leaving little more than a couple of hours’ worth to read on the Monday.
I am a really slow reader, so for me to read a 600p book in little more than two sittings is almost unheard of. In terms of time elapsed it was 5 days.
But, as I said it is not just the speed with which I read it, or the degree to which it engaged me, it’s the way it has just stayed with me. As a writer, I appreciate (am in awe of) Willis’s ability to control pacing and tension through the detailed description of the minutest of actions and interruptions — this is apparently a trademark of her writing. Moreover, although her general style is an accessible read with lashings of humour (some of it lol), she doesn’t shy away from the most horrific things happening. In fact, there is little to celebrate at the conclusion of this novel, which left me sorrowful and chilled — yet also moved almost beyond bearing.
The Doomsday Book must now go down on my list of favourite novels of all time. It’s a book I will no doubt be recommending to anyone who will listen, whether or not said individual likes science fiction (and I strongly believe that non-SF fans will like this). It’s no wonder at all that it’s already regarded as a modern classic.