Allen and Unwin (2010)
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
All Clear is a novel that presents something of a dilemma for the reader – it’s one of those books which you really don’t want to put down, but it’s far too long to be read in a sitting, even if you have no responsibilities beyond finishing the novel. It’s not a one-time dilemma either; every time you pick it up you get engrossed all over again and again want to resist putting it down.
All Clear is the sequel to Blackout, published last year. Willis makes reference in her introduction to one novel growing into two, and the two novels really do read like one book that has been (more or less arbitrarily) cut in two. There were no doubt some very practical reasons for this – for a start, if they’d been published as one volume it would almost have had to come with a free lectern, as there wouldn’t be any other practical way of reading a book so large. However, it’s to Willis’ credit that this lengthy story is engrossing, never boring, and memorable. I was surprised to realise that I read Blackout around nine months ago – it was still so vivid in my memory that I thought it had been much more recent.
In volume one, three historians – Merope, Mike, and Polly – are sent by time travel from Oxford in 2060 to World War II. They intend to be there briefly, collecting specific information as part of broader projects. However, they soon discover that they are trapped – they can’t get back to 2060 and for some reason no retrieval team has come after them. They do manage to find each other, though, and band together to both survive in the short term and try to find their way home.
All Clear follows this ongoing search. Like Blackout, the action takes place largely in World War II. Like the trapped historians, we have no idea what has happened or why. Have they disrupted history? Are they simply unable to return to 2060 or have they somehow destroyed the future they knew? How can they minimise any more changes or correct any changes they may have made? These are agonising things for the three young people to worry over. To make it worse, Polly has a deadline. She had already visited a later part of World War II, and you can’t exist twice in the same time. If she doesn’t escape before she arrives “again”, then Polly will die.
The structure of the novel can be a bit challenging; although the bulk of the action stays in World War II, it does skip around within that timeframe. And the historians don’t always use their own names while on assignment – Merope, for example, is calling herself Eileen as Merope would not have fitted the time period – and won’t re-use the same name twice in the time period. When Willis skips to a different time or place, she uses the name the historian is using then and there. This makes a lot of sense, as most people wouldn’t wander around thinking “I’m really Merope but I’m calling myself Eileen” constantly. The characters have other things on their minds. It’s a very credible way of heightening some of the mystery and tension. In the end it all comes together beautifully; if you haven’t worked it out along the way, by the end of the novel it should be very clear who was who in which time period. The points where you realise who someone “really” is are wonderful – there’s a real sense of revelation and of other things falling into place and making sense.
Willis rather sneakily introduces some historical references that will look to many readers as though they are clues to what is going on – but which are no such thing. For example, I bet she was having fun when she referred to the title of an Agatha Christie book as Murder on the Calais Coach; imagine being able to use Christie as a red herring! Although this sort of thing strengthens the story and keeps the reader interested in trying to work out what’s happening, and anticipating what might happen to the historians, it’s also a clue towards the meticulous research Willis has done.
As with Blackout, it is the characters which really drive this novel. Sure, the historical detail is fascinating, and the period vividly evoked. And the “what’s happened and will they get back to 2060” plot is both intriguing and a strong driver to keep readers moving through the book. But it’s the characters that really get to you. This is an emotionally moving book that makes you really care what happens to these people. You’ll want oh so desperately for things to work out for them. In the closing pages of the novel you’ll almost be holding your breath as the final resolution plays out – nothing is certain until almost the last page of the novel. And Willis reserves one last surprise for the last couple of pages – something you won’t have seen coming, but which is remarkably moving.
All Clear really needs to be read after “Blackout” to make full sense. Readers who haven’t read the first novel will struggle somewhat, as Willis doesn’t do a lot of recapping. This is one lengthy story. It is extremely satisfying; it has a lot to offer in terms of a thoughtful, well worked out, and involving plot; characters that will strike at your heart; extensive historical research that leads to a strong sense of place and time; and writing that is enjoyable without being stylistically obtrusive. Most important, while you’re reading this, you’re likely to be so involved that you won’t be analyzing the novel. This is highly recommended for almost everyone, as it has aspects that will appeal to many readers.