It’s been quite a long time since I read a Connie Willis book, but several years ago I read her two previous time-travel novels, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, and another of her books, Passage, which was not about time-travel but which kept coming to mind as I read Blackout and All Clear. In Passage, I was frequently frustrated by what appeared to be endless running around, failed attempts to send messages, people just missing each other and never connecting. But in the end, everything tied together and paid off so beautifully that it took my breath away.
Blackout and its sequel All Clear (you can’t really read the two separately; it’s one long book in two volumes) grow out of the same premise as The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog: in the mid-twenty-first century (so, in, like forty years or so), time-travel technology has been perfected, and is used by historians at Oxford University to travel back to the past and observe important events in history. (Historians in 2060 can also get packages of information about the past downloaded directly into their brains, which to my mind explained one of the major criticisms I saw readers make of this book — that the characters, though historians, seem frequently unaware of basic facts about the Second World War. I’m just assuming that now that these implants are available, people have gotten lazy about memorizing any information that’s not specifically included in their downloads).
Three students — Polly, Eileen, and Michael — all travel back in time to observe various aspects of the Second World War. Polly, after an earlier trip to 1944/45 to observe the VE Day celebrations, goes back to 1940 to study Londoners’ reactions to the Blitz. Eileen is in 1940 too, but outside London, working undercover as a housemaid in a stately home while observing London children evacuated to the countryside. Meanwhile, Michael, posing as American journalist Mike Davies, is trying to get to Dover to observe the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk. But time travel is not running as smoothly as it used to, and Polly, Mike and Eileen all find themselves trapped in 1940, unable to get back to 2060 Oxford.
Most of the story is taken up with their frantic attempts to find a way back home, which is usually interesting though sometimes frustrating (how many missed Underground trains, or roads blocked by rubble, do we really want to read about), though it’s set against the background of such an interesting time and place that it’s still enjoyable to read. As for the payoff — it’s not as satisfying as in Passage: everything does tie together, but not in as neat a package as I’d hoped. At the end of a convoluted time-travel story like this, I like to feel, “Oh, that could never have worked out any other way!! It all had to happen like that!” While the end of All Clear satisfied me, it didn’t make me feel like everything that had gone before was inevitable or the puzzle pieces fit perfectly. I wanted that “A-ha!!” moment, and never quite got it.
These were the kind of books that I raced through quite quickly, engrossed throughout and eager for the conclusion. After reading it, I read a few reviews by people who didn’t like the book, and while some of the things other readers pointed out — such as Americanisms that US writer Willis slipped into the speech of her British characters — didn’t bother me because I didn’t notice them, I did agree with some of the other criticisms. Connie Willis certainly hasn’t written the perfect pair of time-travel books here, but I found them a very enjoyable read and I would recommend them to anyone who likes time travel.