To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

4 February, 2015

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Because around a crisis point, even the tiniest action can assume importance all out of proportion to its size. Consequences multiply and cascade, and anything – a missed telephone call, a match struck during a blackout, a dropped piece of paper, a single moment – can have empire-tottering effects.

Following on from Doomsday Book which saw one of the Oxford historians sent back in time to a plague-ridden Middle Ages, Connie Willis returns with To Say Nothing of the Dog (or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last) set in 2057 in Oxford but this time with a different set of students to probe Victorian England.

History student Ned Henry has been sent on several trips to the 1940s and even further back by the formidable Lady Schrapnell, who has hijacked all time-traveling personnel in Oxford, to search for the legendary bishop’s bird stump, a hideous ornament lost in the bombing of Coventry Cathedral during the Blitz. Trying to escape the tedium of combing through Edwardian jumble sales looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the bishop’s bird stump, Ned jumps at the chance to travel to the Victorian period on a job for Mr. Dunworthy of Balliol College. Unfortunately, due to severe time-lag, he falls asleep just as Mr. Dunworthy is prepping him on his mission and consequently arrives in Victorian Oxford without a clue as to what he must actually accomplish carrying only a covered basket. This sets in motion a number of unforeseen events. All he knows is that his mission has to do with a place called Muching’s End and a boat.

Looking for his contact, he falls in with a student named Terence St Trewes with a dog named Cyril who hires a boat to Muching’s End to chase after Tossie Mering who turns out to be Lady Shrapnell’s ancestor. Tossie is looking for her cat Princess Arjumand who has gone missing and, it later transpires, has been rescued from drowning by Ned’s fellow student Verity Kindle, thereby possibly altering time.

Verity returns to Muching’s End to ensure she hasn’t changed anything and to ensure Tossie gets to Coventry where she will meet her destiny and to enlist Ned to make sure history happens as it’s written. As both Verity and Ned navigate the social etiquette of Victorian Britain, trying to make sure they evade suspicion while completing their mission, it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Dunworthy has plans of his own. Can Verity manage to evade the problems caused by her actions? And can Ned prevent Tossie and Terence from getting together? And will they find the blasted bishop’s bird stump?

Throw a dodgy spiritual medium into the mix and Willis has created a comedy of errors whilst also addressing the paradoxical nature of time travel. Discussions about slippage and consequences of actions are well thought out and once again Willis’ fascinating portrayal of time travel is a winner. However, To Say Nothing of the Dog is very different in tone to its predecessor Doomsday Book. We are once again reunited with Mr. Dunworthy and his team, but this novel is much more light-hearted; a comedy of manners with lots of missed chances, misunderstanding and unexpected twists.

It took me a while to get used to this new style but in the end Willis managed to hook my interest with her intricate plotting, a nice mixture of Austen and Christie with a conscious homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!). As I haven’t read the novel, I doubtless missed any references which may have added to my pleasure however this didn’t in any way detract from my enjoyment. Winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a difficult novel to summarise, so intricate is the plotting, but I urge you to try Willis’ work – it’ll be like nothing else you’ve read before.

Next stop: Blackout/All Clear.

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6 Responses to “To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis”

  1. Abbi Says:

    I like the sounds of this. Should I start at the beginning of the series?

    • sakura Says:

      I’m not sure, depends on what kind of writing you like and what mood you are in. Either way, I have a feeling the second one you read may come as a bit of shock. I always like to read novels in the chronological order in which they were written so I naturally settled for Doomsday Book. However I hope you read them all!

  2. aartichapati Says:

    This was my first Willis novel, so I had the reverse culture shock experience that you did when I read Doomsday Book – I found it so serious and heavy vs this light and fun one. This one does remain my favorite Willis book – it inspired me to read Three Men in a Boat, too 🙂

    • sakura Says:

      I really love that she can pull of both styles – it’s incredible. And it’s so made me want to read Three Men in a Boat too. Have you tried Blackout and All Clear yet?


  3. I didn’t realise this was a sequel – will have to search out Doomsday Book, as I’ve had TSNOTD on my shelf for a while. Looks like I have a treat when I get to it. I’ve read Three Men in a Boat so hopefully will get some of the references too.

    • sakura Says:

      It’s not really a sequel, more like set in the same universe sharing a number of characters. But I do recommend reading them all! And if you’ve read Three Men in a Boat, I’m sure you’ll love it.


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