the Little Red Reviewer

Rereading The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Posted on: February 12, 2019

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

published in 1992

where I got it: purchased used

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I’ve read this book before, and I mean that both figuratively, and literally.  This is my or second or third time reading The Doomsday Book, and it’s a book about time travel that asks the question “what could possibly go wrong?”, which is a story trope I’ve read before.  Not a spoiler, but everything goes wrong. Oh, the name of the book sounds familiar?

 

And since this book was written in 1992, I don’t feel bad about spoiling certain plot points. Click here for my spoiler-free, original book review of this title.   Because this blog post? It rambles. It has mild spoilers. And it gets a little personal.

 

In late January, I found myself in a reading slump. I had a lot going on, and I was struggling to relax and just fall into a book. I needed a book that would grab me on page 1, throw me about, transport me, allow me to escape into someone else’s life for a few hundred pages, and then not break my heart into a million little pieces at the end, because damnit, i wanted something with a happy ending for once.  I did cry at the end of The Doomsday Book, but not from a broken heart.

 

If you’ve never read this book before, it’s got a lot of death. A lot of people die, a lot of people are helpless in the face of death, some people lose hope.  I’m not gonna lie, there is a lot of sadness and a lot of fear of dying in this book. You might cry. But oh, this book is full of so much hope! So many people who are doing everything they can to save their friends, people who refuse to be helpless, people whose compassion knows no bounds, characters who spend every waking moment caring deeply about other people, even if they don’t quite know how to show it.  There are scenes that are sad, but this is not a grim book. What is the opposite of grimdark? Hopebright? The Doomsday Book is hopebright.

 

In the near future, we’ve discovered how to travel into the past. The technology is mostly utilized at universities, and they send historians back in time, with the goal of avoiding the most dangerous times in history.  Kivrin will be the first historian at Oxford who is sent to the Middle Ages. She’s been working towards this moment for the last 2 years. Her advisor James Dunworthy has never been so worried in his entire life.

 

Something I love about this novel is how Willis starts the book when the action starts. There is no preamble, hardly any character introduction, plenty of British banter, and before page twenty you know the characters are anxious about sending a historian back to the thirteen hundreds, you know people are nervous and vulnerable and worried.  By page 30 you know something has gone horribly wrong. And that’s when the character development starts – after you’ve been hooked.

Two things, actually, are going terribly wrong. In the same place, but 800 years apart.  In the “now’ timeline, within hours of Kivrin jumping through time, the entire city of Oxford is under a quarantine to keep a strange illness under control. It’s like influenza, only worse.  Her time travel technician is hospitalized, and within days the doctors and nurses are coming down with the illness as well. People are dropping like flies. Even with modern medicine, people are dying. The lab is shut down. With her tech in the hospital, and the college nearly closed up tight for quarantine, who will open the net for Kivrin to come home?

 

I read The Doomsday Book during the polar vortex.  One morning when I drove to work, the thermometer in my car read -18.  My work outfits were planned around wearing layers. It was too cold for road salt to work, my commute through the country became realistically dangerous. I finished this book on the day the polar vortex lifted.  Who was I to complain about cold days, and needing to wear leggings under my pants, when people in the 1300s were going barefoot in the winter? Who was I to complain about a drafty window, when Kivrin had nothing but a weak fire to keep her warm?  I cried at the end of The Doomsday Book because the end is that powerful, but I’d be lying if some of those tears weren’t in relief that it was finally warm enough to safely be outside. (I am writing this review in early February, it is 40 degrees outside, and now we are in danger of mass flooding)

 

Oh, what was the second thing that went terribly wrong?  Kivrin. Something was wrong with the coordinates. She’s not in 1320. She’s in 1348, the year the Black Death came to Oxford.  And just because she’s been innoculated against just about everything, doesn’t mean anyone else in the village has any protection against the disease. If Dunworthy and the techs don’t know what year she’s in, how will they ever be able to open the net with the correct coordinates so that she can come home? They’ll surely open the net in the right place, but she’s already missed the rendezvous by 28 years.

 

The first time I read this, I must have focused on Kivrin’s plotline. She’s the time traveler, so her story must be more interesting, right?  And yes, it is very interesting. The research Willis must have done for this book! Absolutely incredible. But this time through, I let Kivrin have her adventures and do her thing, but I focused on Dunworthy, his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens, and Mary’s great-nephew Colin, who’s mother has dumped him on Mary for the Christmas holidays. There’s also William Gaddson, who while mostly off screen, became a fun and funny character to follow.

 

I appreciated how emotionally vulnerable the characters were.  Dunworthy is open about how worried he is about Kivrin and that he feels what happened was his fault, Colin opens up about frustrated he is with his homelife, and he’s annoyed that everyone treats him like a child. And what will he tell his classmates after Christmas holiday?  That he got stuck in the quarantine, and actually didn’t go anywhere at all? I can’t believe how little attention I paid to Colin (and Finch!) the first time I read this. I was so focused on Kivrin that I missed the best scenes.

 

This is the kind of book that is the perfect cure for a reading slump, and anytime I’m feeling slighted by the world.  The Doomsday Book helped me get my priorities back where they should be, it helped me feel like the world isn’t a shitty place, that there are good people everywhere and everywhen, that people really do care about each other and want to help each other, and that in the darkest of times, human compassion will always, always win. And on the days when I’m beginning to forget that, I’ll just reread that last scene with Kivrin and Roche.  I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

12 Responses to "Rereading The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis"

Yes! One of my favorites. I cried so hard at the end of this novel. It got me right in the feels.

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i was so proud of myself, i made it to the last 10 pages or so before I burst out in tears. like, this book made me uglycry!

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I love this book. I’ve only read it twice, because it’s so emotional…whereas I’ve read the sequel about 10 times as an escape. But this is a wonderful book!

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i can not believe I have not read the sequel! what is wrong with me?

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Happy Valentine’s Day, Red.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!!! 🙂

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Oh my goodness! Connie Willis! The day I discovered her books changed my life. You’ve done justice and more to The Doomsday Book – such a great, great read. And now if you’ll excuse me, I may just have to go find out my copy and read that ending again … 🙂

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we can cry together when we read the end. 🙂 I can’t believe I’ve never read the sequel to this book , I ordered a copy.

Liked by 1 person

I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much as you did this. And I look forward to your review, if you choose to write about it. 🙂

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I just picked up my copy of the sequel yesterday, Everyone at the bookstore said it looked really good too! i have a suspicion I’ll be reading this pretty soon. . .

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This book is so poignant, I cry when I think about it. I liked your blog post. You’re right about the emotional vulnerability of the characters.

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i love that you love this book as much as I do!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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