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To Say Nothing of the Dog – Book Review

Written by: Connie Willis
Published by: Bantam Books

I’ve looked over the books I have reviewed so far, and found they are rather serious and somber. I’m going to lighten the mood with To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, a novel that tells the story of a temporal paradox that could destroy the space-time continuum. But this is not another Star Trek time travel rehash, trust me.

In the mid-21st century, time travel has been developed, but Time doesn’t like to be messed with. It is impossible to take anything from the past into the present. Because of this, time travel has become consigned to cash-strapped universities, such as Oxford. However when a researcher, Verity Kindle, returns from 1888 with a cat, this impossibility should have caused a huge uproar. Unfortunately, the wealthy and demanding Lady Schrapnell has commandeered Oxford to help her rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed during a Nazi air raid. Since the cathedral is to be an exact copy (Lady Schrapnell’s favorite saying is “God is in the details!”), everyone is working to exhaustion including Ned Henry.

Ned has been traveling to 1940 and back so much looking for the “bishop’s bird stump” (an ugly Victorian decoration), his brain has become addled with “time lag”. To get him away from Lady Schrapnell’s badgering, he is sent back to return the cat to 1888 and avoid the possible destruction of the universe. Ned’s brain is so addled by the time lag he doesn’t think to ask “How did the cat get to the present?” or “Where do I return the cat to?” or “How do I get out of this mess?” of which there are many in the book.

[ad#longpost]This book is more in the vein of P.D. Wodehouse than Dickens. While there is a definite science fiction element to the story involving temporal paradoxes and unraveling them, the main story is a Victorian comedy of manners, filled with misadventures, misassumptions, and miscommunications for Ned and Verity as they try to fix history. Because of this, plot is emphasized over character. The people the two time travelers interact with are the typical Victorian characters: the whimsical, romantic student; the domineering, oh-so-proper mother; the gruff, distant father; their ditzy, spoiled daughter; and the Marx-reading, suspicious butler. But they are written well enough that they never descend into stereotype.

Connie Willis writes the whole book with a light comic touch that points out the silliness of Victorian life: church bazaars, séances, interior design, and their interactions with cats and dogs. But it never is mocking in tone. In fact, when Ned and Verity put down the period, they seem almost as snobbish as the Victorians themselves. The writing is vivid so you can feel yourself floating down the Thames or holding a croquet mallet. While the plot can get a little complex, it never bogs down and the payoff at the end is worth the trouble. So pick up To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis and enjoy yourself.

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