Connie Willis,
To Say Nothing of the Dog
(Bantam Spectra, January 1998)

Ned Henry, protagonist and narrator of To Say Nothing of the Dog, is a 21st-century historian at Oxford in England who studies the past through time travel. His own work has been suspended temporarily by one Lady Schrapnell, whose name suits her personality, to assist with the replica of Coventry Cathedral which she is funding. The cathedral, destroyed during a World War II bombing raid, apparently had a life-changing impact on one of her ancestors in 1888, and she is determined to restore it to its former glory.

Ned's task is to find out whether the bishop's bird stump, a figurel urn used to hold flower arrangements, was actually in the cathedral the night it was bombed, and if so, to find out where it went so that it can be recovered in 2057. The bird stump was the specific item in the cathedral which affected her ancestor; therefore it is of utmost importance. Apparently, the contemporary craftsmen can't replicate it, and Ned, having seen the original in all its hideous ornate glory during a visit before the bombing, fully understands why. Still, as Lady Schrapnell proclaims volubly and incessantly, "God is in the details" and by golly, she's going to get every detail right.

One of the physical effects of frequent shuttling through time is a disoriented condition known as time lag, and Ned is sent back to the 21st century when his condition becomes pronounced. He is ordered to rest, but is at a loss to know where to hide from Lady Schrapnell, who doesn't believe in time lag and isn't about to let him take a break from his labors on her behalf. Fate intervenes in the form of Verity Kindle, another historian currently working in 1888 with Lady Schrapnell's ancestor. Verity returns to 2057 with something from the past -- which is not supposed to happen. The Powers That Be decide that a vacation in Victorian Era is just the ticket for Ned, and they send him back with the something. Unfortunately, he's too time-lagged to understand exactly what they're telling him to do, and from his unceremonious arrival on, it seems to be one misadventure for Ned and Verity, now charged with keeping the ancestor, Tossie Mering, from marrying the wrong man -- not that they know who the right man is -- and making sure she gets to Coventry on the right day.

The plot is fast-paced and wildly funny, including chaos theory, jumble sales (and their origin), Agatha Christie novels, Lord Peter Wimsey, the heroes of Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), straw boaters, seances, eccentric Oxford dons and, of course, the butler. The nearly 500 pages seem to fly by, and by the last fifty pages or so, the suspense is nearly unendurable. Readers of Victorian literature, especially those who have read Three Men in a Boat, will especially appreciate the style, down to the chapter headings which outline everything, and any reader will enjoy Willis' deft humor as well as her talent for bringing the story to life.

Ned is a particularly likeable character and narrator, and Verity is more than his match. The other characters are also memorable, whether a 21st-century scientist or a 19th-century matron, and in a scene, Ned is a witness to seeing older acquaintances of his as they were when about his age, which gives the section a gently poignant underscore.

Part mystery, part comedy, part science fiction, there's something to appeal to any reader. Don't miss out on the fun.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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