Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

When I picked the Time Travel theme, this book was first on my to-read pile — I’ve had it for ages but never read it. I should not have waited this long — this book is incredible.

Doomsday_Book“I know you’re worried about me, but please don’t be. The drop’s on the main road from Oxford to Bath only two miles from Skendgate. If no-one comes along, I’ll walk into the village and tell them I’ve been attacked by robbers. After I’ve determined my location so I can find the drop again”. She put her hand up to the glass. “I just wanted to thank you both for everything you’ve done. I’ve wanted to go to the Middle Ages more than anything, and now I’m actually going.”

Kivrin Engle is a historian at Oxford University, whose dream of visiting the Middle Ages is about to be realised. It’s a risky operation, because no-one’s ever been sent that far back in time before, but the science is sound and there’s very little chance of anything actually going wrong. But when Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, she’s immediately struck down by a mysterious illness. Delirious, she is carried to a local manor house, where she is cared for until she recovers.

Kivrin finds herself in the household of Guillaume D’Iverie, although the lord himself is absent. There’s his wife Eliwys, his mother Imeyne, and his daughters Rosemund and Agnes — and the household is in hiding, since Guillaume is in legal trouble in Bath. Imeyne is suspicious of Kivrin from the start, and so she has to abandon her carefully constructed alibi, presenting herself merely as ‘Katherine’, a lady who has lost her memory, and acting as a companion to Agnes and Rosemund.

However, instead of arriving in 1320 as planned, it transpires that Kivrin has instead been transported to 1348, at the very beginning of the arrival of the plague in England. The rural idyll quickly turns into a nightmare, as Kivrin tries to save those around her with her scant knowledge of modern medicine.

Meanwhile, back in the twenty-first century, Kivrin’s original mysterious illness turns out to be a contagious virus that quickly infects hundreds of people in Oxford. The two stories show the effects of an epidemic illness in a stark parallel, as her colleagues in Oxford try to battle bureaucracy to rescue her from a different time whilst living in a quarantine.

I loved this book. The historical setting feels so true and believable, and the story doesn’t shy away from the horrific reality of the plague. I really cared about the fourteenth century family, especially the daughters — six-year-old Agnes who cares mostly for her puppy, and twelve-year-old Rosemund, about to be married to an abusive yet wealthy neighbouring landowner. In the modern setting, the chaos and confusion (and no small amount of farce) of living in an epidemic are cleverly drawn, and the two plots mirror each other as they hurtle along.

But overall, this is a book about history. It’s about what connects us to the people who lived in the same place as us hundreds of years ago, and how we can learn lessons from what happened to them, and it’s a really good example of how the time travel story can be so much more than a history-tourism adventure.

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