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To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis

Average Review Rating Average Rating 8/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Published : 1998

Copyright : Connie Willis 1998

ISBN-10 : PB 0-553-57538-4
ISBN-13 : PB 978-0-553-57538-5

Publisher's Write-Up

From Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, comes a comedic romp through an unpredictable world of mystery, love, and time travel...

Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He's been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop's bird stump. It's part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.

But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveller, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right - not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Nadine (250305) Rating (8/10)

Review by Nadine
Rating 8/10
It's hard to know how to classify this book. Essentially, I suppose, it is science fiction since the plot revolves around Oxford University in the year 2057 where time travel has been developed for the purpose of historical research. Most of the actual story, however, takes place either during the Second World War, or Victorian England. So it is also historical fiction. And it's a mystery, and a romance, and a thriller…

Overall I think I would call it a comedy, because the premise is so pleasantly silly: Ned Henry, a historian at the university, is sent back to the year 1940 to search the rubble of the bombed cathedral in Coventry for an ecclesiastical treasure known as The Bishop's Bird Stump. It proves rather difficult to locate, and nobody seems to know why it is so important. Meanwhile, a fellow historian working in the Victorian Era has accidentally rescued a cat from drowning, and brought it forward to 2057. Ned is reassigned to return the cat to its proper time before its absence can create havoc with the space-time continuum. However, the moment he sets foot in 1888, his very presence begins to alter history. Now he must try to set events back on track to avert disaster.

The book pays tribute to a great many literary heroes. Naturally the title suggests many a reference to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, and this is indeed the case. But Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie also seem to have been present during the writing of this book - looking over Ms Willis's shoulder and making helpful suggestions.

I really liked it. I was thoroughly absorbed from the first chapter, both by the time-travel/causality/chaos theory aspects, and by the mystery surrounding the Bishop's Bird Stump and what it had to do with anything. It's one of those clever plots where there seem to be lots of unrelated things going on, but they gradually become intertwined and at the end it all comes together to make sense. It's like a time-jigsaw, where we know how it begins and we know how it ends... but our poor hero has to fit together the events in between, with only a few clues to go on.

I absolutely loved the characters. Ned is the kind of bewildered, reluctant hero who'd rather be sitting down quietly with a book than saving the Universe. He's intelligent, but seems to have a knack for putting his foot in it. His fellow Time-Traveller Verity is bright, feisty and somewhat cynical. She has both feet firmly on the ground and she likes dogs. Then we have an absolutely batty Oxford Professor, a student of the tobacco-pipe and straw boater variety, and a witless, beribboned, frilly sort of girl who speaks baby-talk to her cat and cheats at croquet.

As always, though, I have some minor grumbles. First off, it wasn't as funny as I'd hoped. The comments on the "More Praise For... " page suggested that I'd be howling with laughter throughout, which I wasn't. But there are some amusing comments, and really the whole idea is quite humorous. There is an appealing sort of irony about missing cats, ugly Victorian artwork and jumble sales being vital to the correct functioning of the Universe.

I do think it's a pity that Ms Willis didn't engage the help of a British proof reader at some point. When writing a book in which significant portions are set in Victorian England, using traditional British English would make for a more convincing atmosphere. It is perhaps a very minor fault but it's a pet peeve of mine when Americanisms crop up in a story set in England. One minute you are picturing a placid scene of boating down the Thames among the swans, watching the honey-coloured walls of Christ Church College drift by. Then your main character refers to his braces as "suspenders" and... well. A whole new mental image presents itself. In fairness, it only happened once or twice - but I found it annoying.

My only other criticism would be the pseudo-scientific jargon. Admittedly it is necessary to invent some scientific terminology when writing about a technology that hasn't been invented. But it did get very confusing when there were constant references to the expected levels of slippage in the immediate area surrounding an incongruity. I'm not sure if the author's intention was to baffle the reader, but when faced with a mystery I find the pleasure immeasurably increased if I know exactly what it is I'm supposed to be mystified about.

Other than that, a splendid read. It's probably worth pointing out that it isn't essential to have read Three Men in a Boat beforehand. However, I would recommend it because a) it is fabulous; and b) you will understand the joke about the tin of pineapple.
Nadine (25th March 2005)

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