Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 3, 2011

Three men in a boat and time travel!

To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998), by Connie Willis, 493 pp.

Is time-travel fiction a form of travel writing? Why not? Ned Henry, the hero of this farce, spends the first half of the novel suffering the time-travel equivalent of jet lag. The only cure is sleep, and plenty of it, but each time it seems that he’s going to finally get the rest his body craves, something pops up — a cat, a silly young woman, a gorgeous and intelligent young woman (not the same one), a professor let loose upon the world, a butler — well, as I said, poor Ned doesn’t get to sleep at all for quite some time.

He’s a researcher for a time travel organization (incorporated sometime after 2018), looking for a missing item to help a wealthy woman who’s on a mission from God: to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during WWII. Item for item, she wants an exact replica of the Cathedral as it existed in the moments before being obliterated during the Blitz. But not in Coventry — in Oxford.

Anyway, Ned has to locate something called the “bishop’s bird stump”, some kind of urn decorated in the worst of Victorian over-active embellishment. (Think chintz upholstery next to flocked wallpaper, and you’ll come close; Edward Gorey’s busier etchings come to mind.)

Ned’s boss sends him to 1889 to rest a bit before continuing his search, and this is when his troubles really begin. A cat had accidently been brought 150 years into the future, and it’s messing up the space-time continuum, so it has to be returned. You know, the butterfly effect. It’s all about chaos theory and the interconnectedness of all events across time and space. Evidently, this cat’s disappearance from 1889 will mean that Hitler wins WWII.

Oy! We can’t have that.

Willis cleverly takes Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and updates it, while still setting it in the same period. In fact, at one point, Ned and his friends (and a dog) cross paths with Jerome’s boat — mirror images approaching each other along the Thames. They wave at each other across the waves, just before Ned runs his boat into a pylon.

Ned’s time-traveling partner (although they rarely travel together) is an expert in 1930s English murder mysteries, and there’s a lot of talk about plots that feature Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Of course Ned and Verity (the gorgeous and intelligent woman mentioned above) end up at a country house, where the butler plays a critical role.

Quite a change from Willis’ Dooms Day Book (1993), a harrowing tale of time travel (seems to be her specialty) back to the 14th century, where the heroine gets dropped into a village at the height of the bubonic plague.

Both are well worth reading!

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