Review: Blackout by Connie Willis
This book was a personal purchase.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)
“Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.”
This novel is best summed up by an old proverb concerning unintended consequences. It goes like this: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider, the battle was lost; for want of a battle, the war was lost; and all because of one little nail.” This novel’s three main characters find themselves in situations where they may unintentionally change history. The fact that all three are in England during world war two makes this possibility especially grim, since letting Hitler win the war would be disastrous.
This novel may be too slow for some readers. The author includes many details that some may find boring. I, however, found them to be fascinating. For example, the tide of war may have turned in England’s favor as a direct result of two German pilots getting lost. It emphasizes just how much of history hinges on seemingly innocuous events. I’m highly tempted to get online and search around to see if this particular tidbit of information is actually true. If it’s, and others like it, are based on real events, it adds great depth to the story.
I appreciated that Willis took the time to flesh out many of the secondary characters. The shop girls working with Polly, the children looked after by Eileen, and the soldiers from Dunkirk that Mike meets, all spring to life just as vividly as the main characters. This is in line with the theme of the book, as many of the contributions of civilians remain virtually unknown to us. I’m sure they are known to historians, but they should be known more widely. Their courage and determination may well have saved the world from tyranny.
The fact that history could be changed at any moment lends an increasing level of tension to the story. Although historians are not supposed to be able to change the past, there are increasingly frequent hints that just such a thing may be occurring. The saving of one person, or the death of another, could change the future enough to spell disaster. Again, some readers may not have the patience to follow this slowly building chain of events, but I greatly enjoyed it.
This is actually my second time through this book, as I read it when it first came out several years ago. I never got around to reading the sequel though, and I’m looking forward to seeing how events played out. I don’t expect Germany to win the war, but in this case it’s the journey that counts. Packed with historical trivia, this novel is one of Willis’s best works.