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Blackout Blends History and Time Travel

September 25, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis
Published by Spectra, February 2, 2010

In the year 2060, time travel has been perfected and harnessed by academia. At Oxford University, historians travel back in time to study the past first hand. Three scholars find themselves in World War II England.

While studying the Blitz, the German bombing of London, Polly works as a shop girl in a London department store. She spends her nights  with neighbors in a bomb shelter. Her days are spent among stores that have been shattered by bombs but are still open for business, watching Londoners courageously trying to continue with the flow of their lives, refusing to give into their terror.

Merope has gone “in service” in a rural English manor to observe children evacuated from London in anticipation of the Blitz. The manor is overrun with children, many of whom have lived in unspeakable deprivation in the London slums. And her energy is consumed by a brother and sister who misbehave so spectacularly that their reputation precedes them everywhere they go.

Michael has arrived to observe the evacuation of Dunkirk. He is meant to be in Dover, observing the rescue of English soldiers from a safe distance. Dunkirk is a divergence point, a place where any action, large or small, might alter the course of history. However, due to “slippage,” he doesn’t arrive in the exact time and place he’d planned, and things go in a completely unexpected direction. Although “nets” are in place to prevent historians from inadvertently changing history, Michael is terrified he’s had an impact on the war. What will change? What if England loses?

These young historians struggle with everything from absurd bureaucratic red tape in academia — apparently some things never change — to terrifyingly obnoxious children, as well as bombings, diseases, and injuries in the line of duty. Then things go horribly wrong.

This novel, written in a simple but somewhat elegant style, is a pastiche of historical events in World War II England. It switches among various characters and different settings. I found this distracting at first, but I quickly learned to go with the flow, and it contributes to an intriguing sense of time being nonlinear that fits the premise of the book.

The story is woven on the framework of time travel, with tangled threads of history running together, and chaos theory (the butterfly effect). These elements are sufficiently developed to be intriguing without being overbearingly technical or challenging.

Blackout also offers a wealth of characters, time travelers as well as the “contemps,” people living around 1940. However this is not a character-driven novel. There’s a tremendous number of people, flitting on and off the screen, in this book. And we know little about the back story of even the three main historians. This lack of depth left me a bit frustrated.

On the other hand, the main characters felt real; I enjoyed being inside their heads as they navigated their adventures. I sensed they were very bright, though in some ways, naive. And they sometimes tended to have tunnel vision, because they had immersed themselves so deeply in the periods they were studying. There were occasionally surprising gaps in their knowledge,  and I sometimes wondered whether they were confusing actual historical events with documented rumors and propaganda. This characterization of bright, focused young students struck me as being right on the mark. And all the secondary characters were well drawn and delightful.

The novel’s real strength, however, was in the wealth of historical detail. The author meticulously researched the events  she explored in this novel, and she told the story slowly and in great detail, highlighting the complex reactions people show in the midst of war, including their spontaneous acts of kindness and heroism. Everything seemed so real, I felt I could reach out and touch it, and by the end of the book, I felt like I’d “been there.”

The downside is that the end of this long novel (490 pages) is a cliffhanger, and all the complicated threads the author unfurled won’t be tied up until the next book, All Clear, which will be released next month. I will be eagerly awaiting my copy.

This was my first novel by Connie Willis; I spontaneously picked it up in the library. I love historical fiction, and I have fantasized about time travel all my life, so I was an easy target. Have you read anything by this author? What did you think?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2010 9:35 pm

    This book sounds interesting! I don’t know if I’ve read Connie Willis before, although the name sounds sort of familiar. Too bad about the cliffhanger.

    • September 25, 2010 11:32 pm

      It is interesting! I was hooked as soon as I skimmed the blurb on the cover flap and saw what the premise was. But yes, cliffhangers are annoying.

  2. September 26, 2010 2:24 pm

    What a fabulous premise! I would love to travel back in time except I’d probably do horribly, being spoiled by modern comforts. Land me in the middle of World War II and the Germans would probably end up winning.

    • September 27, 2010 12:08 am

      I know what you mean. 🙂 I get flummoxed when my internet connection is down. 😛

  3. stacybuckeye permalink
    September 26, 2010 9:05 pm

    This sounds like I’d like it, except for the cliffhanger part!

  4. September 28, 2010 2:32 pm

    I want to read this, but I’m waiting until the sequel comes out, so I won’t have to worry about the cliffhanger. I read one of Connie Willis’s time travel books, The Doomsday Book, and I was not impressed with it. However, I think that had largely to do with the fact that I don’t care about the period of history the characters were visiting (Black Plague time). Whereas I love World War II stories!

  5. October 1, 2010 10:36 am

    I read To Say Nothing of the Dog not too long ago and LOVED it! It was a really big book, but it was funny, it was historical, it was packed with references to other books!

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