I really wanted to title this review “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego”. Not for any correlations to the bible story in To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis. Because the characters reminded me of former high school classmates of mine who received those nicknames our freshman year of high school from a very cranky history teacher. Much of the struggles of Ned, Terrence, and Cyril through the early portions of the book reminded me of them. But we should begin and the beginning, and I should stop confusing you with the way my mind works.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is the second Connie Willis novel to exist in a world where time travel is used for historical study. With the inability to bring valuable items forward in time, everyone else seems to have lost interest in this technology. Enter Lady Schrapnell (who does send buckshot through the lives of the characters in this work), and her single-minded desire to rebuild Coventry Cathedral due to her family’s history there.
In order to rebuild the cathedral to its exact likeness before its destruction in World War II, Lady Schrapnell has been bullying the history department (strapped for funds) to send historians back to 1940 to research the state of the building, and has specifically assigned our main protagonist, historian Ned Henry, to find the Bishop’s Birdstump (an ornate, Victorian, vase). Several too many jumps have left Ned with the worst case of time lag anyone has ever seen, and historian Verity Kindle has accidentally brought an object forward through time while researching Lady Schrapnell’s great-great-great grandmother, and we have a situation where Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right–not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.
Once back, traveling separately, Ned meets Terrence (an undergrad at Oxford) and proceeds on a boat trip down the Thames. Terrence, along with my favorite character in the entire book Cyril the dog, are really on the hunt for Tossie, whom he met while she was looking for her lost cat. What follows is a comedy of errors as Ned and Verity attempt to keep the young would-be lovers separated, make sure that Tossie falls in love with an unknown man with the initial ‘C’, and that all incongruities are put right.
I listened to this book, and the audio was 21 hours long. There is a lot of plot to be had in this book. Connie Willis is seemingly incapable of letting a thought go unpursued. Which, as the novel continues allows Willis to build in repeated phrases, which are then in turn used to build the humor. This book was not as funny as I was initially led to believe, being more of a wry observance than anything else. But I did often smile reading this book, the humor is built up over repeating passages rather than the standard quip. Willis also spends plenty of time unpacking tropes, and the list accumulated on at TV Tropes is quite illuminating.
This is gentle, suspenseful, silly, romantic and sophisticated reading, I unfortunately just never really suck into it. I blame the audio narration.
But, even though I’m only rating this a three stars, it does appear that the best parts of Willis’ writing from The Doomsday Book make their way here. And much like that book, this one lives and dies by its characterization, which thankfully is wonderfully done. The historians are well-developed and multi-dimensional and we’re able to pop in and get some more information about Professor Dunworthy (he does in fact have a first name!) I confess I especially love Cyril, who is completely dog-like but provides a silent foil for Ned’s thoughts, and in a particularly canine manner serves as reader’s best friend.