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Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Year:
1992

The habit of beginning to read book without knowing very much about them is sometimes very rewarding. I tend to avoid as much factual information as possible about the content of the book before I read it, including everything printed on the dust jacket. I like recommendations, however, and reading all Hugo Winners is one kind of recommendation, albeit not always a good one.

Therefore, I had no idea at all what Doomsday Book was about before I began, but it turned out to be a story split in two, one in early 14th century and the other some 700 years later. Kivrin, a novice historian at Oxford University, travels back through time to study the Middle Ages, but something goes terribly wrong during the drop. Instead of being sent to 1320, she ends up dreadfully close to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. Even if she is immune to the plague, she knows that it killed half of Europe…

Parallel to this, Kivrin’s teacher, Mr. Dunworthy, battles the administration of his own university to help his student, but a hitherto unheard of virus causes an epidemic and the neighbourhood is put under quarantine, further tangling the already difficult task of discerning what went wrong and what ought to be done about it.

I like Doomsday Book because it portrays a time in history which is very difficult to grasp by means of statistics and facts. I do not know how much time Willis spent on researching the Black Death, but everything seems realistic to me and she manages to convey much more than just information. The story and her descriptions convey emotions which opens a window to a view of the Middle Ages I had not experienced before.

However, there are certain blemishes, some of them more serious than others. To begin with, the story taking place in the 14th century is at least ten times as interesting compared to the other one, which makes me wonder if the book would not have been better if it had focused more on that. Sure, I agree that the parallel stories add suspense and depth to the novel, but the imbalance between the two parts hurts the novel as a whole.

In addition to this, the language does not earn my approval. It is far from bad, but it is also far from exciting, original and entertaining. Also, I do not like the pseudo Middle English which is used. Kivrin has some sort of translator, so I would have preferred if the dialogue was written in plain English, without the ubiquitous “nay”, “naught” and occasional change in word order. This is especially annoying when the rest of the sentences are in modern English. I assume the idea is to convey a feeling of times long gone, but to my mind it is mostly irritating.

That being said, Doomsday Book is, without doubt, an enjoyable read. Willis lets us come close to the characters as well as the story and manages to engage my interest, which is something that happens fairly infrequently. Kudos to her for succeeding.

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