What would it be like to travel back in time in Oxford, England to the Middle Ages? A young historian finds out in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The “present” is December 2054. The young historian, Kivrin Engle, is to be sent back to December 1320, a time deemed relatively safe by the powers that be in the history department at Oxford. Two sections of that department are involved in this project: Medieval and Twentieth Century, the latter because they’ve had more experience doing time travel, and have more experienced techs to operate the “net,” the mechanism for the time travel. What could possibly go wrong?
When I began reading this novel, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was reading it on the recommendation of several friends. The time travel aspect really intrigued me. And then, the medical detective story surprised and delighted me. What truly fascinated me, especially as a writer, was how Willis used obstacles to build and maintain suspense throughout her story.
Structure first: It is a 3-act dramatic narrative structure with two distinct threads contributing to it. The first chapter is the set-up or first act. The second act lasts until about the last chapter overall, but there are also climaxes for each of the medical stories. So, there is the overall time-traveling story that alternates between 2054 and the Middle Ages, and two sub-stories regarding medical issues, one a virus, the other a bacterium. There is Kivrin the protagonist, and then there is Mr. Dunworthy, the point of view character and protagonist in 2054. What do they each want? Once Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, her primary goal is to find “the drop,” i.e. the place where she arrived. The first obstacle in her way is falling ill when she shouldn’t have fallen ill. Once Kivrin has left 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there was some kind of problem with the drop. He spends the rest of the book trying to find out what went wrong, why, and how to rescue Kivrin.
The obstacles: In the Middle Ages, Kivrin starts out being so ill she’s delirious and hallucinating. She speaks modern English which the people who find and care for her don’t understand. She must overcome their suspicions about her and gain their trust. She must fix her inner translator so she can begin by speaking Middle English. She’s cared for by a noble family and a parish priest. They believe her to be from France, of a noble family because of her clothing, and that she had been attacked and robbed on the road. Once she begins to recover, her translator kicks in, and she learns about her rescue. She realizes that she must find the location of the drop so she’ll be able to return to 2054. She believes the nobleman’s prive knows the location because he found her and brought her to the village and their manor house. She spends most of the rest of the book trying to either find him or talk with him. The customs of the Middle Ages, especially those governing the behavior of men and women, and the way people communicated, stand in her way. The matriarch of the manor stands in her way. And then the children stand in her way. And then she discovers that something had gone wrong with the drop, and a dangerous bacterium threatens to stand in her way. Each of the obstacles arises organically from the time, the people, or the customs. Kivrin’s focus on finding the drop keeps the pressure on and increases the suspense.
The obstacles: In 2054, the first obstacle to Mr. Dunworthy is that the tech who did the drop falls deathly ill with a mysterious virus. That virus needs to be identified, and then the source of it identified, in order for the doctors to be able to treat it effectively. Arising out of this obstacle, Medieval’s head, Mr. Gilchrist, refuses to let Dunworthy back into their time travel laboratory because Gilchrist is afraid the virus came through the net from the Middle Ages. Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, the Oxford area is quarantined by the government which restricts the movement of supplies and people into Oxford. As a result, the quarantine becomes a major obstacle to Dunworthy — the phones don’t work well, travelers are detained and must be housed and fed, techs outside of Oxford for the Christmas holiday refuse to return, and the sick tech is too sick to tell Dunworthy what the problem was with the drop. Poor Dunworthy. Wracked with guilt about Kivrin, pushed and pulled this way and that by the people in and around the University, all he wants is to get into the lab, solve the problem and get Kivrin back.
By writing in close to each protagonist’s point of view and mind, the reader witnesses the chaos of emotion within them as well as their thoughts. This also contributes to the suspense. There were times I began to feel some irritation at Willis for having Dunworthy or Kivrin keep repeating themselves about their goals, but that just enhanced the pressure of the obstacles thwarting them. When Dunworthy falls ill, all looks lost.
What a wonderful example of a novel for creating and maintaining suspense! And what a riveting story. I loved the characters, I loved the humor that Willis injected into the very serious situations, and I loved the emotional release that the ending provided. A masterwork of fiction that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading speculative fiction, time travel stories, historical fiction, or medical detection stories. Bravo, Connie Willis.