Blackout, by Connie Willis(Ballantine Books, 2010, 491 pages)
In previous novels --Doomesday Book (1993), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999), Connie Willis sent history students travelling back in time from a future Oxford. Blackout is set in this same universe, a few years down the line. Things are getting a little harried at the time travel control center, what with people popping in and out of time and space, demanding accents and golf lessons and era-appropriate clothing and props. Schedules are being changed with little notice, there are temporal slippages, and one theorist is warning that there might be issues, as it were, with time travel...
Three students of history are busily studying aspects of World War II. Merope is embedded as a maid at a country house full of evacuees, Polly is off to London to work as a shop girl during the blitz, and Michael is studying "heroism," and plans to interview a sample of Dunkirk rescue participants. All are pretty confident that the boss of time travel operations, Mr. Dunworthy, won't let anything bad happen to them. After all, he's been very particular in his insistence that they not stay in particular places that are going to be bombed, and that sort of thing.
But then things go wrong. The war seems to be progressing as it should. But Michael shouldn't have been able to actually take part in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Merope shouldn't have been trapped by a measles epidemic. And Polly's way home has been bombed... Surrounded by the chaos and death of WW II, the three young time travellers being to wonder if there is a glitch in time...one that might result in a more in-depth experience of the past then anyone would ever want.
This is a book that demands the attention of the reader, and then rewards it tremendously. In many ways, it is like being part of a series of nightmares--the chaos and the confusion experienced by the protagonists (not just in WW II, but in Oxford of 2060, as they try to prepare for their missions) was almost too much for me. The short chapters that jumped between the character's point of view added to my difficulties.
As the book progressed, however, and I got more of a handle on the three main stories I was being told (and the protagonists got more of a handle on their own circumstances), I became fully absorbed in Willis' utterly gripping portrayal of the fall of 1940. During the last two hundred pages or so I might not have blinked, I was so lost to the real world. Willis manages to combine emotional depth with bright surface detail, making for very good reading indeed.
But then came the cliffhanger of an ending. The second book, All Clear (coming this fall) really is, it seems, a continuation, not a sequel. There is NO closure to this book, and nothing is explained. And in consequence, I think I might have read Blackout too carelessly in my riveted state, and missed Important Clues. For instance (not a spoiler), on page 454 a character thinks: "Unless...oh, God, she hadn't even thought of that possibility. She'd assumed...but that was even worse..." And I have no idea at all what this person is thinking....and then the book ended soon after. Argh. I wonder if I am now assuming worse-er things than the character is, or if there are Horrors that haven't crossed my mind.
Blackout is a fine example of the sort of time travel story in which the immersion of the characters in the past is central--it is almost more historical fiction than sci fi/fantasy. But because the characters are from the future, and know what happens, their perceptions of the past that they are living have a certain type of poignancy to them that straight historical fiction doesn't. To be friends with someone you know is dead, to see a cathedral you know will be bombed, is to see the world in a whole different light, and Willis conveys this beautifully.
But you might want to wait a few months more before reading this, until All Clear is out and ready to hand!