Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

My introduction to Connie Willis was in her book To Say Nothing of the Dog--so good! | A book review by

I almost dropped this book before I really got into it–I am so glad I kept going!  To Say Nothing of the Dog has a little bit of everything, including comedy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, and time travel, and it is so well woven together that by the end I was in love.

So, about the plot!  Ned is a time traveler from 2057 England, where a rich woman named Lady Schrapnell has promised to donate a massive amount of money to the time travel institution on one condition: that the time travelers help her recreate the Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a WWII bombing, because the cathedral had made a huge impact on Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor.  Ned has been searching the rubble of the cathedral for artifacts in 1940 when he is suddenly sent back to the 1880s to meet Lady Schrapnell’s ancestor and try to smooth over a catastrophic mistake that might unravel the time-space continuum and allow the Nazis to win WWII (at least, I think so?  The consequences of time travely things was a little unclear to me).  Throughout all of Ned’s adventures in 1880s England, from boating down the river with his new friend Terence, to putting on a seance with his contact Verity to help redirect the course of history, Ned attempts to find the bishop’s bird stump–one of the last pieces of the original Coventry Cathedral that needs to be found for use in the recreation.  (In case you’re wondering, as I was through most of the book, what a bishop’s bird stump is, it’s basically a huge, gaudy vase or urn, decorated with depictions of historical and biblical events, in which the church placed flowers for their services.)  The mysteries of where the bishop’s bird stump disappeared to after the war, where it can be found now, and how things can be brought through the time travel net are, I suppose, the main plot of this book, but Ned’s narrative voice and his hilarious adventures kept me from getting too bogged down with trying to understand the mystery aspect (more on that later).

Like I mentioned earlier, it took me a while to get into this book.  It started off very 90s feeling (makes sense, since that’s when this book was written, but it was an odd feeling in a book that is set both several decades earlier and later than the 1990s), and there were several instances of “We’re going to talk about this thing you don’t know about and explain it to you later in the book” (I hate that!).  However, after the first thirty pages or so, I was hooked.  Ned and his contact Verity are great characters–they work hard to make things right, but neither of them are perfect, and a lot of times their mistakes are what drives the plot.

The time travel aspect was interesting, and once I got over the slight outdatedness of the timeline, I really enjoyed it.  (Apparently, cats became extinct in 2004, and time travel was a workable concept in 2018?)  Fortunately (in my opinion), since most of the book took place in the 1880s or the 1940s, it read more like historical fiction than a sci-fi or futuristic book, and the time travel was just an enjoyable facet to the story.

There were several references in this book to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (the title of this book is the subtitle of Three Men in a Boat) and Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.  I probably would have gotten a little more out of To Say Nothing of the Dog if I had read them before reading this, but I don’t think it was a great loss that I hadn’t.

The ending went so quickly that I was left slightly confused about what the solution to the mystery was (although most time travel books/movies tend to do that to me at some point).  Still, the mystery was solved (with a slight twist at the end!), and it was a very satisfactory solution.  No one was murdered, no one’s lives were really at stake (unless you count the entire time-space continuum threat), and it was a really fun, entertaining, sweet read.  There really is something for everyone, so pick it up and enjoy!

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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