Connie Willis

Allen and Unwin (2010)

ISBN: 978-0553803198

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts, May 2010

This is, quite simply, the Connie Willis novel that her fans have been waiting for. With novels such as To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book, with stories such as “Fire Watch,” her interest in World War II history and in particular the Blitz has been evident – but it has taken until now to produce her Great Blitz Novel.

The bad news for fans is, this is only half of said novel. The second half is being released as All Clear at the end of 2010. Little concession is made to the gap between publication, with Blackout simply pausing on a very minor cliffhanger, as if there has been a paper shortage. But, you know, those of us who have been waiting a decade for a Willis novel will naturally suck it up and wait the extra ten months or so.

Blackout covers familiar ground, introducing us to the gentle future England we have met in earlier books, the kind of science fiction that might be imagined while lazily punting down a river in 1930’s Cambridge. There has been no Spike in this version of the mid-twenty-first century, which is peopled with earnest time-travelling scholars so completely wrapped up in the minutiae of their favourite time period that they don’t seem to notice the lack of wireless internet and iPods. (I’m pretty sure they all write notes with fountain pens.)

In charge of it all is Mr Dunworthy (does anyone else mentally substitute that for Dumbledore?) who has obviously been so traumatised by his appearances in Willis’ earlier time travel books that he has become snappish and irritable, determined to protect his students, who are all equally determined to go back in time and get themselves blown up in air raids.

I’ve always liked the ingenious system of time travel that Willis created for this universe – historians who are only allowed to observe, or to reclaim objects that might otherwise be destroyed. A net-like ‘drop’ which will not let them through to points of great historical fragility or significance, and which re-opens regularly to allow their return. Slippage, the technical term used when historians don’t quite make the time and place they meant to go, and which is always assumed to be time itself ensuring that disasters do not occur.

Ironic, really, because in a Connie Willis time travel novel, disasters always occur. In this case, three eager young historians: Eileen, observing the most horrendous evacuee children ever devised; Mike, posing as a reporter to learn about the Dunkirk spirit; and Polly, whose research project is the life of shopgirls during the Blitz, all get separated from their drop points. Which would be fine, if they had a backup plan to contact Mr Dunworthy back in the future. Or indeed, each other.

But that’s okay, it’s time travel – surely there will be a rescue team along to pick them up. Some time today. Surely. Okay, maybe tomorrow. Huh.

The pleasure in Blackout is, as is to be expected, the wealth of detail about this particular time period. It is a love letter to the Blitz, describing what it would be like to hide from air raids, flirt with soldiers, swap nylons, and deal with cranky landladies. It’s crossword puzzles and Tube station sleeping and knitting and rubble. It’s marvellous. Of course it is. But sadly, just as we finally seem to be launching into action beyond day to day survival … did I mention the book just stops?

So basically, I’m waiting. I don’t know what is in store. The thing about a Connie Willis novel is – there’s always comedy, and there’s always romance, and there’s always drama. And sometimes she leaves you feeling happy and fluffy and cheerful, and sometimes she leaves you (okay, me) a gasping, sobbing puddle of goo on the bed because sometimes, just sometimes, her books reach through the ribs and rip your lungs right out of your chest.

I’d kind of like to know which kind of this book is, but I won’t until All Clear is on the horizon.