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Doomsday Book

A young researcher travels back in time, arriving by mistake at the site one of Europe's worst disasters

*Doomsday Book
*By Connie Willis
*First published in 1992

Review by A.M. Dellamonica

I n a future where history students gather their research by time-traveling to the period they plan to study, everything a scholar hopes to accomplish depends on the risk factor for her chosen era. Sending students off to a century rated five or six is old hat for the University of Oxford and its twentieth century expert, Professor James Dunworthy, but much of the past remains untouched and untouchable. The Middle Ages, for example, are a most-hazardous 10—a rating the cautious Dunworthy fervently supports.

Our Pick: A+

Now, as a result of bureaucratic wrangling at the university, the medieval period has been downgraded. Dunworthy's academic rivals propose to send their first student to the year 1320. An ambitious and brilliant young undergraduate, Kivrin Engle shows a force of will and a determination to see the 14th century that are key factors in getting the century opened for exploration. Dunworthy opposes the project, but he has been tutoring Kivrin anyway, out of fear that if she is insufficiently prepared she won't survive the experience.

Indifferent to the controversy that surrounds her proposed study trip, and armed with the usual youthful belief in her own immortality, Kivrin cares only about seeing the past. But events are conspiring against her. First an error sends her to 1348, during the Christmas outbreak of the bubonic plague at Oxford. Then her retrieval is compromised by another infectious disease outbreak ... this one in her home era.

Heroism amid devastation

In her first novel, Lincoln's Dreams, Connie Willis tackled the incomprehensible tragedy that was the U.S. Civil War. Next in the award-winning Doomsday Book, she brought the long-ago horror of the Black Death to life for a present-day audience. No simple disaster story, this book gives readers time to fall in love with its many heroes and even to sympathize with its villains. When disease begins its sweep through the novel's cast, the effect is devastating and strangely intimate.

A meticulous researcher who always imbues her time-travel pieces with a rich level of historical detail, Willis obscures the precise nature of what is happening to her characters in the early sections of the book. They are left to chase a trail of crumb-sized clues to the truth. As answers emerge, the particular brilliance of Doomsday Book—its parallel storylines—becomes obvious. Even as Kivrin realizes she is in the midst of the plague, the influenza outbreak at home is killing people at the university. Both epidemics play out in detail, showing how far medical technology has developed in the centuries between 1348 and the present ... and how little human nature has changed over the same period. The helplessness of the medieval villagers against the plague is contrasted with a frantic modern effort to fight the influenza. The results are humbling.

Mankind's physical vulnerability in the face of infectious disease is hardly the only theme of this novel, whose true subject matter is the human capacity for love, courage and faith. Kivrin cannot save the plague victims from death, but—of course—defeating death was never a likely outcome. Time and again, Willis reminds readers that nobody escapes death, that every century (whatever its time-travel rating) has a 100 percent death rate for its contemporaries. What Kivrin does save the medieval villagers from is arguably more important: indignity, fear and despair. And when she is in her turn rescued, the experience is unforgettably moving.

Willis is a fearless writer, confronting tough subjects with common sense and compassion. The scope of the disaster in this book is so vast that it makes rereading Doomsday Book an almost painful experience, rarely to be sought. But it is nevertheless worthwhile: Kivrin and Dunworthy's small victories become immensely meaningful when set against this broad canvas of human frailty and desperation. —A.M.D.

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