To Say Nothing of the Dog ~ Connie Willis

  • Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog
  • Author: Connie Willis
  • Series: Oxford Time Travel #2
  • Genre: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  In her first full-length novel since her critically acclaimed “Doomsday Book” Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, once again visits the unpredictable world of time travel. But this time the result is a joyous journey into a past and future of comic mishaps and historical cross-purposes, in which the power of human love can still make all the difference.

At once a mystery novel, a time-travel adventure, and a Shakespearean comedy, “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a witty and imaginative tale of misconceptions, misunderstandings, and a chaotic world in which the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line, and the secret to the universe truly lies “in the details.”

This was my first Connie Willis. The novel was a charming discovery, and I’m definitely going to read more of this writer. 

The book is hard to summarize. It touches on a number of interlinked themes, but the main one, in my opinion, is history and its redundancy. We all know about the butterfly effect, but in Willis’s fictional universe, it’s almost impossible to change history, which tends to repair itself whether people interfere or not. A troubling concept, isn’t it? Does anything we do make a difference?

But Willis didn’t write a philosophical tractate on the topic. Instead, she picked a deep, solemn idea and transformed it into an irreverent caper, as if saying: ‘Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.’

The novel follows the protagonist Ned Henry, a historian at the Oxford time travel department in the middle of the 21st century. Disoriented and sleep-deprived from his time-lag syndrome (too many time jumps in too short a period cause the condition), he ‘drops’ to the Victorian era to recuperate. His boss also asks him to perform a small service for the department: return a cat, which another historian, Ned’s coworker Verity Kindle, smuggled inadvertently from 1888. The smuggled cat might create, or has already created, an incongruity in the time-space continuum, which might result in the changing of history. The department head can’t allow such a disaster to happen.

Together, the two young historians embark on a romp to fix the possible incongruity. Along the way, they fall in love, meet a set of quirky secondary characters, and embroil themselves in a number of hilarious situations, like a séance with a faux medium. Love and history collide, the past and the future mix and match, and the cat comes out the winner.

Actually, I might suggest the alternative title for this story: Much Ado about the Cat.

The author has a knack for inventing fanciful names for her characters. The heroine, Miss Verity Kindle, is erudite, kind, and utterly adorable. In my mind, she is associated vaguely with my Kindle (you may laugh, but I adore my Kindle), although Kindle hadn’t been invented yet when Willis wrote this book. Maybe she traveled into the future…

Another character, the time travel department’s benefactress Lady Schrapnell, is just as she sounds: loud, unstoppable, and loaded. You don’t want to stand in her way. And of course, the cat. Her name, Princess Arjumand, meows for itself.

The narrative is beautiful and effortless, enriched by piling absurdities, extensive and slightly anglicized vocabulary, and the writer’s wicked humor. An amusing and delightful read.

The only problem I could see with this book, and why I dropped a star from its rating, is that it’s too wordy, especially in the middle chapters. I was drowning in the flood of extraneous details, historical references, and poetic quotations, and I wondered: what was the connection of all this verbiage to the story? Maybe the author, like her heroes, suffered from time-lag? She describes inconsequential chatter as one of its symptoms. The book wouldn’t have suffered at all if it was 300 pages instead of over 400. In fact, it would’ve been tighter and more focused. On the other hand, its very dishevelment might be part of its charm.