Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Book Report: All Clear

Another slow start to the day. Tomorrow I really might set an alarm. I go back to ballet tonight, so maybe that will make me sleep better so I can then wake up more easily. Then there's an exercise class at the neighborhood rec center I've been thinking of trying on Thursday morning, and that will give me a good reason to get up. I've found that setting an alarm isn't necessarily that effective if you don't have a good reason to get up at any particular time. It's like the alarm that cried wolf.

So, as I mentioned last week, I read All Clear by Connie Willis, and I named the Blackout/All Clear duology my book of the year. Really, it's one book split into two parts because of the physical limitations of book binding and probably due to publishing business concerns, and it's best read as one book because it's so complex that it would be easy to lose track of who's who, where and when if you had a gap between the first and second parts. I've been waiting for this book for more than eight years. I first met Connie Willis in early 2002 at a writing conference, and we ended up in a nice, long conversation, since we have a lot of common interests, including WWII. She mentioned that she was working on another time travel book that would involve WWII and the Blitz. I think she was still in the concept development phase and may not even have worked out things like plot and characters. After reading the finished product, I can see why it took so long. The research alone would have been a massive undertaking, and then it's a pretty intricate plot, and it's got an epic length.

The plot, in brief, involves three young Oxford historians in 2060 who are using time travel technology to observe history. One is studying the evacuation of children from London during WWII by posing as a housemaid in a manor house where a lot of children are staying. Another is observing the behavior of civilians during the Blitz by posing as a London shopgirl who spends her nights in air raid shelters. And a third is working on a project about ordinary people who become heroes in extraordinary circumstances by visiting a variety of key events. This time around, he's observing the evacuation of Dunkirk while posing as an American reporter. But then things start going wrong with the time travel, and they may not be able to get back. Is it because they've altered history -- and could they have done something that will alter the outcome of the war?

In tone, I would say this one is closer to The Doomsday Book than To Say Nothing Like the Dog in that it's got a lot of tragedy in it, and because it has multiple points of view and covers multiple timelines. But it's a lot more complex than that because it's not really linear. It actually gets pretty wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Since the entire past happens simultaneously from the perspective of a person with time travel, you can spend years working on something in the "present" or in other times and still make it back to a certain point of another time within minutes, and you don't necessarily visit events in chronological order. The book bounces around between three (and a bit) stories in 1940, two in 1944, one in 1945 and a few in 2060 that lead to even more time periods. All of these eventually converge, and multiple stories converging is like catnip to me (something else to add to my literary bucket list). Toward the end, I couldn't put the book down because each chapter ends with a big cliffhanger before jumping to another timeline. I cried a few times, sometimes just from an overwhelming burst of emotion. I will have to re-read the whole thing now that I know what's going on and can relax and actually pay more attention. It's the kind of book that must be re-read because it takes on a different meaning once you know what's really going on. It also makes me want to re-read The Doomsday Book, and I'd almost recommend re-reading that one (or reading it in the first place) before tackling this one. That's not essential, but a familiarity with that book will probably intensify one of the big "wow!" moments in this one. It also does reference the events in To Say Nothing of the Dog, but that's not crucial to the plot. It's also good to revisit the short story "Firewatch." I'd read it a long time ago but didn't remember much about it, and re-reading it last week made me understand part of this book better. And I'd suggest watching the movie Mrs. Henderson Presents because a familiarity with that bit of history will help you get more of the jokes.

I would call this book bittersweet because while it is ultimately uplifting, there are also some really bad things that happen, and yet one of the really bad things is also kind of inspiring and very moving. I've always loved the "homefront" kind of war stories, not so much about the soldiers but about the people struggling with ordinary life in the midst of war, and that's really what this is about, how the civilians in England were fighting on their own front that was as harrowing as the front lines, and ordinary people had to step up and be heroes (another bit of literary catnip for me).

I could go on and on and on about this book, and I'm dying to find someone else who's read it that I could discuss it with. There's one tiny loose thread that's been bothering me a lot, and I think I have a theory about it (that's the part I found myself dreaming about the night I finished reading it), but I'm not sure.

No comments: