March 18, 2010

BOOKS: Blackout, Connie Willis (2010)

It's 2060, and the history students at Oxford University no longer have to rely on old documents and boring books to do their research. Thanks to the marvels of time travel, they can actually go back and study great historical moments first hand. This is a backdrop that Willis has used before. Domesday Book was a fine historical drama about a student trapped in the era of the plague; To Say Nothing of the Dog was a lively comedy set in the late 19th century.

For Blackout, Willis focuses on England during World War II, sending three of her Oxford students to that era. Eileen is studying the children who were evacuated from London by serving as a nanny to evacuees on a country estate; Polly is working as a London shopgirl during the Blitz; and Michael is headed to Dover to witness the evacuation of Dunkirk as part of his research into history's unsung heroes. They've all been programmed with the basic knowledge they'll need to survive the era; Polly, for instance, knows the times and locations of all the bombs that will hit London during her stay.

They all face more than the usual level of bureaucratic fumbling as they prepare for their trips. Departure times are re-scheduled abruptly; the costume department hasn't prepared the right clothing for them; and everyone seems unusually tense at the lab that does the drops and pickups.

And once they've finally gotten back to the war, the problems only continue. Pickup teams aren't arriving when they're supposed; their drops aren't opening as they should; and each of the three begins to have the nagging suspicion that the war isn't playing out precisely as their training has taught them it should. Either that, or something has gone very wrong in 2060 Oxford.

Willis's strengths are well displayed here. Her characters are likable and fully realized; she's particularly good at giving us entertaining supporting characters -- a pair of unusually bratty children for Eileen to struggle with, a cantakerous old sailor who wants to take Michael to sea in a badly battered boat, a whole company of Londoners with whom Polly takes shelter during air raids. Willis does a fine job of building and sustaining tension as our three heroes begin to realize that they may be in far more serious trouble than they'd ever expected.

But there is one huge annoyance here: This is only volume one of a two-volume novel. Not part one of a series, mind you; there's not even any pretense at a resolution. The story simply ends midway through with a note that we'll have to wait for the "riveting conclusion" until All Clear is published in October. There's nothing on the cover of the book, or on the title page, to indicate that this is not a complete novel. It's an unkind thing to do to your readers.

And it is, I suspect, the explanation for the fact that Blackout occasionally feels a bit bloated and repetitive. After reaching that "to be continued" non-ending, I have a hunch that Willis took to her publisher a manuscript that was deemed too long to be published as a single volume, but not long enough to be broken in half; faced with the choice to edit or pad, it seems that Willis chose to pad.

I enjoyed Blackout and am certainly looking forward to All Clear. I just wish that Willis and her publisher had chosen to be honest with us about what we were getting with this book. It's only half a novel, and it's a dirty trick to market it as if it were a complete one.

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