© Connie Willis.
This is a two-part novel, the second half being “All Clear.” I waited until I had both in hand before reading this one, and I’ll be reading the second half next.
Connie Willis seems to specialize in exasperating characters, ones you wish you could reach into the story and give a good shake. The setting of the story is World War Two England, but the main characters are from a future time, the year 2060, when time travel has made it possible for “historians” to go back to key periods in history to observe. At least, observe is what they’re supposed to do, though often they get dragged right into events, like historian Mike in this tale, who planned to study the British hero in Dover as a fleet of small civilian boats brought the English army off the the shore of France at Dunkirk, where they were pinned down by the Germans. Instead, Mike finds himself shanghaied and right in the thick of things at Dunkirk, and in mortal danger. Other historians in London during the Blitz are not much better off, in grave danger of being killed by bombs Hitler’s planes are dropping daily.
What makes the characters so exasperating, though, is not their plunges into danger, but their unwillingness to admit to themselves something has gone terribly wrong with the whole time-travel process. Each of them is long past due to return to 2060, but their “drop sites” aren’t working. Each keeps making up excuses for why this might be, never willing to face the facts. It’s exasperating, I tell you! But Willis is such a good writer that we still sympathize with each of them: Eileen in her home for refugees in the north, then in London, Polly working as a sales clerk in the thick of the bombings, and Mike, with a badly injured foot from Dunkirk hobbling around London too. And there are a few other historians who make shorter appearances, no doubt to return in the second half.
Some of the other characters are annoying in another way; without necessarily even realizing it they make our historians’ lives difficult or even miserable. Life in wartime Britain is hard on everyone, but some Brits take ignoring the danger to extremes, or selfishly monopolize the time of others for their own benefit. It’s a wonder Eileen, Polly and Mike manage to survive as long as they do, and as the book ends, at least they’ve found each other.
Great read for history buffs as well as science fiction fans, quite well researched and believable in every detail. Highly recommended, though of course it’s only half a story.