Blackout, Connie Willis. Spectra, September 2010, $18.00, ISBN 9780345519832
All Clear, Connie Willis. Spectra, October 2010, $30.00, ISBN 9780553807677
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear is one story in two books, and, unusually, one half is much stronger than the other. Together they tell the story of Polly, Mike, and Eileen, who travel through time from Oxford in 2060 to the early years of World War II and become trapped there. Interspersed with their narratives are the stories of time travelers later in the war, whose connection to the protagonists gradually becomes apparent. Familiar characters from Willis’s other Oxford time-travel stories return, including Mr. Dunworthy, Colin Templer, now in his late teens, and John Bartholomew from “Fire Watch.” Fans of that short story should not miss these books, as they add a new dimension to its events.
At the beginning of Blackout, the time travelers’ experiences couldn’t be more different from those of the “contemps.” They know where bombs will fall during the Blitz, what is going on in Bletchley Park, and that the Allies will win. But this changes when they realize they cannot return to 2060 and suspect that they have changed history and lost the war. One of the real pleasures of these novels is the convergence of the time travelers’ experience with that of civilians who lived through the war in the ordinary course of events, as they call upon resources they did not know they had and face the future and its dangers without knowing the outcome.
Unfortunately, too much of Blackout is spent setting up the plot, and not enough giving us a sense of who the main characters are. The book ends abruptly as Polly, Mike, and Eileen realize their problem. All Clear has stronger character and thematic arcs. Though it starts slow, the high stakes are clear from the beginning and the plot becomes more intricate and suspenseful as it goes on. But readers may get bogged down in the weaker volume, which lacks the tension and suspense that marked earlier novels like The Doomsday Book, and never reach the payoff.
At their best, these books, through references to culture high and low, to Shakespeare, mystery novels, pantomimes, modernist poetry, religious art, and risqué revues, capture the variety and vibrance of a particular culture at a particular moment when it was at risk of destruction. The last few lines of dialogue, composed entirely of quotes from other authors, are the capstone of one of the most affecting endings I’ve read in a long time. This duology is worth the effort, for that ending and for the sense of history that permeates the whole. If only the earlier parts of the story lived up to the compelling finale.