So a side note: Reading this book while commuting on the SEPTA subway during flu season may not be the brightest idea I’ve ever had.
Plot: For anyone who doesn’t know, Doomsday Book is about an Oxford undergraduate (Kivrin) who, in the year 2054, time travels back to the Middle Ages to study the local people or “contemps.” Due to unforeseen circumstances, she ends up about 30 years later than what she’s supposed to, and the plague is rampant.
On to the review: What a powerful book. At first I was slightly tempted to agree with the reviewers who complain of the occasional repetitiveness of the prose and the characters, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this is part of the point of the story. Through this gradual and relentless build-up, Willis allows the growing dread to creep up on Kivrin, Dunworthy, and the reader. “Something’s wrong,” Badri repeats endlessly, and we know it’s true. But we don’t know for quite a while just what is wrong, and by the time we figure out it’s far too late. Kivrin is stranded and conditions in 1348 and 2054 are deteriorating rapidly and terrifyingly. Through this slow escalation, Willis never allows the reader to judge the characters (especially the medieval ones) for their actions, but puts us in the place of the characters, totally overwhelmed and increasingly desperate.
I loved the repeated use of the fairy-tale that Kivrin tells Agnes of the girl who disobeyed her father and ventured into the woods. The use of the most common folk motifs – children transgressing orders and venturing over the border into the wild and dangerous perilous realm – worked well given the medieval setting and Kivrin’s admirable but reckless approach towards time travel. Related to this is the subtle but (by the end) powerful question of faith in a loving, almighty God. If there is any historical event which would challenge the faith of even the most pious Christian surely the Black Death qualifies, and the contrast of Kivrin’s growing anger with Roche’s steadfast hope and belief was gorgeous. Willis both questions faith and quietly posits answers without ever feeling didactic (in either direction).
All told, this is a beautiful book. It certainly qualifies as science fiction with its time travel component, but that’s really just a device. More than anything it’s an exploration of history, with Kivrin serving as our proxy back to a time both vastly different and deeply similar to our own. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and nothing more so than human nature.