Living history

Last year (as some Bookhounders may remember) during one of my car's frequent periods in car-clinic, I was in Ely at a loose-end, and did, what I usually do when at a loose-end, wandered into a bookshop. This is never good for my bank balance, but is usually priceless for my literary soul.

Friends had advised me to read some Terry Pratchett, following my confession that I had never read anything by him; and so I strayed into the fantasy section, and came out clutching Pyramids, and two volumes by Connie Willis - Blackout and All clear. If I liked, but not loved, Terry Pratchett, I unreservedly adore Connie Willis - her World War Two time travel diptych (one book that became too big and flowed into two) was nothing short of wondrous.

When I found out more about Connie Willis, I was ashamed that I hadn't heard of her before. She has won 11 Hugo Awards (the Booker of the Science Fiction / Fantasy world), and 7 Nebula Awards, more awards than any other writer. Both Blackout and All Clear won both awards. What makes them even more special to me though, is that these aren't just good fantasy / sci-fi novels; they are, without doubt, the best depiction of the home front during the Second World War that I have ever read. They could equally well have won a prize for historical writing.

The saga opens in Oxford in 2060. Time travel is now a reality; and historians are busily heading off to the past to get some very real hands-on research done. Various safeguards are in operation so that they can't accidentally influence the future, and a department in Oxford is kept busy making sure that all their historians have the proper clothing, accents, and information to make time-travel a happy, productive, danger-free experience. Everything seems to be going well when Mike heads off to World War II and Dunkirk to investigate heroism, Polly goes to the Blitz, and Merope (calling herself Eileen) experiences the evacuation of children to the countryside. Things start to unravel though when none of the three are able to return to the present. Trapped in a dangerous past, Polly is in even more danger, as she has been to the Second World War before...

As well as an exciting time travel adventure - will they or won't they escape? - this is a brilliant reconstruction of the home front and the terror of Total War. Willis' use of time travel is truly clever as she is able both to depict events as they were, and also as they probably would be if experienced by an outsider. This element of the outside looking in makes this at times a far more frightening read, and really pulls the reader into the centre of the action. 

Willis has impeccably researched the war in Britain from the astonishing (and occasionally comical) work of Fortitude South, who persuaded the Germans that the invasion was going to happen in Calais not Normandy to the dancers and singers of ENSA; the terrors and entertainments of the Blitz and the much later perils of the rocket attacks. Even Agatha Christie makes a welcome appearance (I cheered!)

More than anything though, I found these two novels a thoroughly uplifting experience. Never had John Donne's quote that "No man is an island" had such meaning as here. As the historians try to stop themselves having an impact on events, the scale of our inter-relatedness is revealed. Truly no-one, however alone they may sometimes feel, is completely alone, everyone has some influence on someone else, however hard they may try to shut themselves away. Mike finds heroes in the most unlikely places, and Polly realises that endurance and love are important whatever time period you may be in. It's a heart-warming read that totally enthralled me; and astoundingly, for a fantasy novel, I know a lot more about the Home Front now, than I did before reading Blackout and All Clear. Quite wonderful.


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