It’s been a long time since Connie Willis, author of To Say Nothing of the Dog, has come out with a book. She’s been working on a book about World War II for years, and it is finally finally out. It was so large that it had to be divided into two volumes, in fact. Blackout was released in spring and the conclusion, All Clear was released this week.
Today I’ll be talking about Blackout. This review contains some spoilers for Blackout, but (because the mysteries are fairly crucial ones), I have tried hard not to include any spoilers that go through to All Clear. All spoilers (which are general and I hope minor) for Blackout are beneath the jump cut. If you want to know whether you might enjoy Blackout and haven’t yet bought it, or if you bought it but kind of gave up because you became confused, bored, or puzzled, here’s what I loved:
Blackout is about war. Not war in the trenches, which is ably covered elsewhere and which I hope (fervently) that I will never see, but a war at home. It is about the civilian side of war, where everyone, in a sense, becomes a soldier. It covers the Blitz in London and it covers the Evacuation of the children to the country, and it covers that most amazing of events the evacuation at Dunkirk, where the British Expeditionary Force was rescued by a lot of Sunday sailors and fishermen. (If you don’t know about this, go find out. It always makes me cry.)
These are not the kinds of stories any of can escape, if they come upon us. They are situations where we must stand up (or not). Not armed with weapons, but with just ourselves. The story is about shopgirls, maids, reporters, actors, clerks, vicars, vergers, and yes, even scholars. It centers, as many of Willis’s work do, around St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was saved from the Blitz by the Firewatch, a small band of dedicated everyday folk who spent the terrifying nights of the Blitz watching for incendiaries on the roof of the Cathedral and putting them out, while the bombs fell.
Blackout makes me cry.
Because, you see, it’s about what I think of as the war for kindness in a world of darkness. Many stories cover the Great Deeds and the Big Battles, and those do exist, out there. But most of us, if we’re honest, will never see them. We rarely stand in the face of the Ultimate Evil. I think many of us, however, will stand in the face of the darker, more pernicious, and more prevalent, Other Evils: destruction, poverty, want, death, grief, fear, illness, tragedy.
We won’t have to hand any kind of Special Sword Forged in the Bright Flame. We might have, well, the ability to make beds, to hold someone, to help someone walk up a steep flight of stairs, to tell them a story, to find a child something to eat, to wrap a package, to drive a car, to make a friend laugh, to sweep a floor, to find a way.
That’s what Blackout is about.
The thing to keep in mind when reading Willis is that what something seems on the surface and what something means or truly is are never the same. A Willis book is always a picture of a lady and a vase. Is it a vase? Is it a lady? It’s always both, and both matter.
I find it extremely rewarding, but I have noticed that lots of people lost patience with Blackout and gave up. I didn’t and only a couple chapters into All Clear I burst into tears because I realized that the lady was a vase. Most stories do not bring me to tears. In fact, I haven’t sobbed over a book in years.
The other part of Blackout that seems to frustrate people is the mystery. There are many threads of story to keep track of, interwoven within time (since this is a time travel story), and it requires a good deal of attention and some memory. I’m not ashamed to say that I took the occasional note. But it’s the kind of mystery that I don’t see written these days. Willis plays by the rules: If one pays attention, one can figure out the mystery. It’s a bit like reading Agatha Christie. There are puzzles within puzzles and stories within stories.
If either of those two aspects of the story don’t turn you off, you might enjoy Blackout a lot. But what, you may ask in frustration, is the book actually about?
It’s about a set of Oxford time-traveling historians from the future who are on assignment in England in World War II. Some of them have different assignment names and real names; I’m using their assignment names to minimize confusion. There’s Eileen O’Reilly, who is observing the children sent to the country during the evacuation. She’s a maid in a manor home in the country. There’s Mike Davies, who is posing as an American reporter. He’s observing everyday heroes and he goes to Dunkirk to see what real everyday heroes look like. There’s Polly Sebastian who goes to London during the Blitz to watch the Londoners experience the Blitz; she becomes an Oxford Street shopgirl. There’s also a ambulance driver, Mary Kent, during the later part of the war who watches the V1 and V2 rockets.
If everyone went on assignment, watched things, and came back to Oxford just fine, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
Naturally, the historians who go out on assignment run into trouble. Polly Sebastian ends up four days into the Blitz. She has to find a shelter in the middle of an air raid. In the church basement she meets the first of many Londoners who make up the story of Blackout.
Eilleen O’Reilly, working as a maid in a manor in the country, ends up missing her go-home day because the children she’s watching come down with the measles and the manor is put under quarantine. Eilleen is my favorite character, and two of the children she watches, the ‘orrible Hodbins, are my next favorites. Alf and Binnie are absolute wretches who cause trouble, leap on beds, put snakes in gas masks, and generally act like hooligans. Eilleen takes care of them through the measles and wonders why the retrieval team (from the future) does not come to get her, since she has missed her drop. When quarantine is finally lifted, she goes to the drop, but it won’t open. And won’t open and won’t open. She’s stuck in 1940.
Mike Davies, who was supposed to watch everyday heroes at Dunkirk, becomes one by accident. His scenes during Dunkirk are as chilling and scary as anything I’ve read in years. I won’t say any more about Mike’s story, because it would be spoilery in the extreme, but oh, it is very well done and I came to love Mike a lot.
Colin Templer, who was in another Willis time travel story, plays his part here, too. At seventeen, he’s fallen in love with the much older Polly and she knows, once she realizes that she, too, is trapped, that he will come and rescue her.
Throughout the story of Blackout, the historians must make their way through war-torn England, and deal with the complications of knowing enough to know they’re in trouble but not knowing enough to get themselves out. They are all also terrified of changing events and losing the War. Because of the way the story is crafted, what with the time travel and the historians and the ‘Net, Willis is able to show the importance (or not) of various small acts and small bit players, explore the intersection of chaos and complexity, the impact of small graces and larger kindnesses, the role of everyone from children to spies to soldiers to nurses to actors. It’s an excellent story, well told, and I recommend it highly.