It's pretty difficult to do a summary of such a huge book without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say that three historians travel back in time from 2060 Oxford to 1941 London during the Blitz to observe what life was like for civilians during such a tense and stressful time. And things go very, very wrong, so the three of them are basically stuck in WWII. And then they get even more stressed out because it's possible that they are having an impact on historic events - what if they changed the course of history? Uh-oh!
I have been going back and forth over whether I should even review these books. There are already a lot of reviews out there, and I am not sure I have much more to add to the discussion. I fell in love with Connie Willis when I read To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was wonderful and hilarious and romantic and not really in the same style as any of her other work. Then I read The Doomsday Book, which was not funny at all but very tense and quiet. Blackout and All Clear are a mix of all of these - there are moments of humor, quite a bit of tension, though not a whole lot of quiet. Obviously, in the midst of the Blitz, there are a lot of sirens and booms and planes. The books are long but read very quickly, mostly because you are so stressed out about what is going to happen that you are incapable of doing anything but reading very quickly to find out what happens next. Willis definitely knows how to write a nail-biting, stomach-clenching story, and she's in fine form with that here.
Willis also really knows her London map, buses to Underground to streets and back alleys. She makes sure that all her readers know that she knows the map, too. I think the book could have been cut by at least 20% if she would stop telling us all the directions and transfers that her characters kept taking. They got old to me after a while, but I can see how telling everyone just how many stops were closed down due to bombs, and all the complicated ways people had to get around instead, was a great way of adding to the setting and atmosphere of this story.
Truly, these books brought to life just how harrowing living through the Blitz may have been. I think the London Blitz is one of those moments in time that the English like to look back on with pride at getting through, and I expect it's romanticized quite a bit. After all, it's not like the English weren't crossing the Channel and doing much the same thing to other cities on the Continent. Willis goes full throttle into the romanticism, calling out the many unsung heroes that kept St. Paul's Cathedral standing, that helped save friends out of the rubble, that worked to keep up the spirits of their comrades with plays and dramas and small, unexpected gifts. And I liked that. I am sure that there was looting and fighting and all sorts of horrors that happened during the Blitz, but hey, sometimes you just want to hear about the good things and not the bad. There is a time for gray areas and people with complex motivations, but perhaps a story about everyday heroes is not the place for them. I respect that.
My main complaint with this book probably isn't a fair one, so I'll just touch briefly upon it here. Couldn't there have been just one person of color in the story?! I mean, there's this Badri guy who seems to just kind of mess up people's space-time coordinates (assuming he is South Asian based on his name), but he is the ONLY ONE, and he can hardly be counted as even a secondary character. I mean, come on. These historians are traveling back in time from 2060 - there's probably a lot of mixed race people at that time. And maybe they are mixed race, but their names and physical descriptions make it hard to believe that they are. And then there's the people in London, which was the seat of a global empire, and apparently NO ONE there was not white, even so. It bothered me a lot. In a book of 1100 pages set in the midst of a massive world war, I feel like there could have been one person.
Anyway, I have talked in zero ways about the plot or the characters of this book, and have managed to write quite a bit. I don't really want to talk plot or characters. The plot is a bit complex and I don't want to spoil what was really a great ride for you. And while I enjoyed the main characters, I didn't fall in love with any of them. Really, my heart belonged to the secondary characters in this one, and they make so many of the scenes so wonderful that I have a feeling you will fall for them, too.
Interesting review - as a Brit, I agree that the Blitz is romanticised. I don't think it's getting through it as such that is romanticised, more the 'Blitz spirit' i.e. not complaining, stiff upper lip and all that.ReplyDelete
I think I'll skip this one for a bit- I've read too many WW2 books over the past few years.
Yes, you are right. Not really getting through the blitz, but HOW they got through it.Delete
Several comments. One, I think this is not as good as scifi as it is as historical fiction, because the play-by-play during the London blitz is excellent, much better, I thought, than the time travel aspects. Also, re "all the directions and transfers that her characters kept taking" - I think that her big thing is communications and MIScommunications, so I think that's why there was so much of that. But me personally? Yeah, I'd be for more editing! :--) Re people of color - I think having Badri is pretty good considering most white authors don't have anybody like him around, but I take your point about 2060, even if it may not have been true of 1941. But that's why bloggers still have to have special diversity campaigns! :--(ReplyDelete
Very true - time travel felt more like an add-on than anything that was of great value to the story. And I get it about the communication/miscommunication and the razor thin timelines, but I got it pretty quickly. She could have cut it way down! And I disagree on the Badri thing. Maybe if he had been a central character, but he was not at all! He had no personality or anything, so I don't think he counts.Delete
I loved this book, and so did my book club. I love books in this time period and setting, but I think this is the best at conveying the feeling and frustrations of the era and settings. I found it wonderfully satisfying. Thanks for the review!ReplyDelete
I got a bit tired of all the miscommunication stuff. It didn't come off as contrived, but I just -- it was so much of the same thing, over the course of two very VERY long books, that it wore thin eventually. I think I always want to love Connie Willis more than I ultimately do love her. :(ReplyDelete
I don't remember ever feeling bogged down or bored while reading these two books (back to back) so I don't think I had the complaints that you did about too many details. It was a couple of years ago though so I can't say that for sure. I do remember feeling frantic and stressed but I kind of thought that she wrote the book in a way that you would feel some of the actual emotion of those being Blitzed. Really though, these are monstrous books and I can't imagine I really did get through them without a single complaint but that's my memory of them, that I raced through and loved every moment of the experience -- and sometimes how you remember the experience of a book is what's most important, right? If the small complaints can fade away without being magnified into big complaints, that's great!ReplyDelete
I do plan on rereading To Say Nothing of the Dog this fall because it's been a while. I have a feeling it will lead to a reread of these as well.
Apart from that 20% this sounds good. I've seen the books on other blogs but only been so-so because it sounds quite long, which I guess it is, but after Life After Life it seemed a good idea to leave lots of blitz description for a while.ReplyDelete
Regarding the diversity, I'd say it's understandable in the historical section, because there would have been diversity but not much, but yes, from the 2060s you'd expect it, definitely.