A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Review

The following post was taken from my Goodreads review:

Re-reading this novel for the first time in a while, to the point where I had forgotten many of the plot points, I was able to find several things I had insufficiently appreciated the first time through.

The first is how skilled Connie Willis is at faking out readers, getting me to bite at the obvious clue while ignoring the actual solution she set up. Because she is a merciful author, she still generally lets you get the “what” right even if you get the “how” miserably wrong.

One early example of this that doesn’t spoil too much: early in the book, the protagonist, Ned Henry, has been sent back to Victorian England from the 2060s. He is waiting at a train station, and notices two women on the platform, one looking quite old, the other relatively young. They both leave, and later, a young man named Terence comes in and asks Ned whether he’s seen two “agéd relics,” two old women he was supposed to pick up at the train station. Ned says no, and ends up accompanying Terence on a boat ride that takes the next couple of days.

Reading the novel, I was pretty sure I could spot the error Ned made: the woman that he thought of as “young” was in her late 20s or early 30s, which would be young for modern/future times, but would, in the Victorian era, be considered a spinster, scarcely any different than the 50-something woman she accompanied. Ned, not being a Victorian specialist (and being somewhat punch-drunk from the process of time travel, which in Willis’s novels seems quite unpleasant), would have overlooked this distinction, and not connected the two women he saw with the “agéd relics” that Terence was looking for.

This is what I mean by getting the what but not the how: it turns out Terence was supposed to run into those women and find them on the train station. But, the “young woman” really was a young woman, around Terence’s age, in fact—a last-minute replacement for the second “agéd relic,” who stayed home—and, had a time traveler not been there to point Terence in the wrong direction, he would have fallen in love with the young woman.

Instead, he goes on a boating trip, falls in love with another woman (who was herself supposed to fall in love with a different man), and much of the rest of the novel combines screwball romantic comedy with time travel sci-fi as the time travelers attempt to fix the time paradox by getting the right couples together. So Willis allows us to spot the problem before her characters do, but then turns around and undercuts our assumptions about the solution—a process that leaves us feeling much like time travelers must, knowing what will happen, but not how or why.

The other thing Willis does very well lies in her ability to generate real affection for characters that, on the surface, might seem a bit thin. Take Terence: for the first hundred or so pages, he’s the image of a spoiled, silly Victorian peer attending Oxford, full of knowledge but short on intelligence, committing poetry to his memory but not to his heart. The best thing he has to recommend him is his bulldog, Cyril, who is amusing and sympathetic in the way dogs tend to be, especially in short comic novels (like the one this book is named after).

Then, shortly before the plot kicks into high gear, Cyril falls off a boat into the water (being a British bulldog, he can’t really swim), and Terence freaks out. He jumps into the water, carries Cyril back to the boat, refuses to get into the boat until he’s successfully lifted Cyril into it first, and spends his time immediately afterwards drying Cyril off until the dog is relatively comfortable and reassured.

It doesn’t really have much to do with the plot, and is quickly forgotten by Ned, but from that point on, I was all in on Terence. Whatever had to happen so that that dude and his bulldog would have long and happy lives, I was in favor of. Anyone who cares for their dog that much was worth rooting for; I didn’t even care that Willis almost certainly put that episode in the novel to give us a rooting interest in Terence. She ends up making it important in the long run; she does that with every detail in the novel.

Really, if you were to tell me that a novel combined a Comedy of Manners with Time Travel sci-fi, that would be enough to get me to sign up—and it was enough, when this novel was recommended by a friend almost 10 years ago. But the thing that really seals the deal for me is the rigor of the novel, the way that every historical example is exhaustively explored, the way that Willis pays as much attention to the geography of an English country house as she does to the mechanisms of time travel, the way that the characters are at once independent agents and the forces of some power beyond their complete understanding. At one point, Willis puts the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way, His Wonders to Perform” into her novel, and it feels like an aspiration.

What a fun read. What a glorious novel.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in purchasing To Say Nothing of the Dog, just follow the link below:

To Say Nothing of the Dog

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