Fiction, History, Science Fiction

Novel: Blackout by Connie Willis

February 14, 2011

While I’ve often liked Connie Willis’ work, I’ve never flat-out loved it.  That seems to be the case yet again with her latest novel Blackout (2010), which I enjoyed in sections, without ever quite falling for the whole.

The story involves English historians from 2060 Oxford, who travel back in time to study the day-to-day lives of beleaguered English citizens during the Second World War.  One of them, Polly, travels to London during the Blitz to work as a shopgirl.  A second, Merope (using the cover name Eileen), time-jumps to a British country manor to observe the plight of children evacuated from the bombings.  A third, Michael, goes undercover as an American journalist, heading to Dover to cover the return of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.  None of their missions go quite as planned, though, forcing them to think on their feet and improvise their way.  And things get even more perilous when their “drops” don’t open on schedule, blocking their timely return to the future.  They’re forced to muddle through the war longer than they were planning, all the while worried that they may be trapped in the past.

In terms of subject matter, Blackout is both totally in my wheelhouse (World War II) and totally out of it (time travel).  In terms of the former, the book succeeded for me in its detailed, well researched depiction of the era.  Willis’ unique focus on the plight of non-combatants, and the day-to-day troubles of civilian life during wartime, made for compelling reading.

As far as the time travel goes, I found the book less engaging.  I liked Willis’ time travel terminology, but the expected plot problems — concerns about altering timelines, getting back, and so forth — seemed kind of predictable.  For the most part these machinations serve the theme well, as each complication thrusts the heroes ever further out of their comfort zones, forcing them to “live the era,” with all its dangers and uncertainties — clearly something the novel is on a mission to show.  But for me the time travel business wasn’t really interesting enough to sustain such a lengthy volume on the plot level.  (To be fair, I suspect this is my lack of interest in the trope speaking.)

My chief complaint about Blackout, though, is that it takes so long to get from point A to point B.  Blackout is only the first half of a story (completed in All Clear, already released), but at nearly 500 pages, it’s awfully long to only be bringing us to a midpoint.  Willis extends the narrative by constantly throwing obstacles into her characters’ paths, usually in the form of the “contemps” (people of the era) the historians become involved with, who are ever trying to prevent them from going places and learning things.  I think it’s supposed to be amusing, but I find it tedious, and perhaps even contrived in order to keep the characters and the reader guessing.

The good news is that if the style works for you, there’s plenty of it to roll around in, and more to look forward to in the second half.  For me…well, I was impressed enough with the setting and the interwoven narratives that I’ll probably read the concluding volume, to see how it all ties together.  But so far, for me it’s a conditional success.

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  • SarahP February 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Yup. The book is waaaaay too long. I quit about halfway through when she introduced two more viewpoint characters, even though the first four were not distinctive enough for me. I found that her previous novel, PASSAGE, needed a rigorous edit, and I’m afraid the same is true of this book and its companion. Also, this time travel excuse for writing screwball comedy is Willis’s schtick, and it’s getting old. IMO she needs to push herself out of her comfort zone a bit.

    • Chris East February 14, 2011 at 11:58 pm

      I’m glad I’m not alone on the length thing. Definitely felt at least twice as long as it needed to be. I agree on the characters, too…until I got familiar with their situations, I couldn’t tell them apart.