Connie Willis’ Hugo-winning novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is a tight mélange of three distinct styles of fiction: A comedy of manners, a time-travel novel, and a literary parody, all tied up into a coherent single narrative that reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, less witty but more sophisticated in structure and story.
Ned Henry works as a time-travelling historian in the 2040s, helping the imperious Lady Schrapnell rebuild the Coventry Cathedral in as authentic a fashion as possible, which means jumping back to just before the Luftwaffe’s raid on Coventry to see what the cathedral looked like, including the evasive (and very ugly) bishop’s bird stump, a wrought-iron monstrosity that has disappeared from the records and the scene. When one of Ned’s colleagues, the beautiful Verity Kindle, appears to break the rules of time-travel by bringing a non-insignificant object back from a trip to the 1880s, Ned is sent backwards in time to try to undo the damage, dropping himself into a Wodehousian setup of mismatched couples, mistaken identities, charlatans, mad mothers, and precious fishes – to say nothing of the dog.
Willis’ title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s fictional travelogue, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), which I’m reading now to try to catch up on the allusions I missed. (One is off base, though; Willis puts an actual dog in Jerome’s boat, even though the real-life boat trip that Jerome used as the basis for his book did not include the canine Montmorency.) Fforde’s literary allusions and stabs at satire were broader and easier to catch; Willis succeeds more in the other two aspects of her novel, mimicking the Victorian comedy of manners (and, later, early 20th century English mysteries) and utilizing time-travel as more than just a plot device.
Willis’ time travel involves a self-correcting “continuum” that works to prevent historical incongruities that would change future events; for example, historians who attempt to travel back in time to assassinate Hitler can’t land anywhere close (in space-time) to him. Jumps into the past can create “slippage” of time or space that increases around a potential incongruity, so when Verity brings back something she shouldn’t have (in fact, that the “net” of time-travel should have prevented her from bringing back at all), the scientists assume they’ve created an incongruity and worked to correct it.
The shift from the imitation of comic novels – including the Jeeves-like butler Baine, who did, in fact do it, but “it” isn’t the it you think it might be – to a mystery that takes on aspects of those of Agatha Christie and especially Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries), with Ned and Verity working together to try to figure out where the bishop’s bird stump has gone, what the incongruity might be, and how to fix it. As in Christie’s novels, there are side mysteries, such as what Ned’s colleague Finch is doing running around in 1888 pretending to butle while on a secret mission for the time-travel department, or why the continuum sends Ned back to a dark tower in the late 1300s when he was just trying to get back to the present.
The greatest strength of the book is the Victorian characters, who are mostly of the upper-class twit variety, including the domineering yet gullible Mrs. Mering, her simpering daughter Tocelyn (“Tossie”), and the fraudulent psychic Madame Iritosky. We’re also treated to an ongoing debate between two professors of history in 1888, Professor Overforce and Professor Peddick, whose argument on the nature of free will and the causes of history itself dovetails nicely with the overall theme of the net, the continuum, and self-correction of incongruities. There’s also a plethora of silly (but still funny) jokes around confusion of names and people, and a fair bit of physical comedy as well.
To Say Nothing of the Dog drags for a short stretch after Ned has first arrived in 1888, once when we’re waiting for him to realize what he’s brought back for Verity (it’s obvious to the reader from the start) and another time when we’d really like the Merings to just get on with whatever it is they’re supposed to be getting on with, two sections where the situational humor can’t mitigate the glacial pacing of the plot. Those are temporary, and once Ned and Verity get cracking on the ultimate mystery of the continuum’s odd behavior, the narrative steps on the gas and doesn’t let up until a rousing, pitch-perfect finish that wraps up almost every plot thread but leaves one critical question unanswered for us and for the characters, an ambiguity that would have driven Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells to spontaneous combustion.
Next up: Before tackling Jerome K. Jerome, I knocked off Jo Walton’s Hugo winner, the wonderful novel Among Others, which is on sale for $2.99 in the Kindle edition through that link.