** Spoilers **
In a snowy clearing, a young woman materializes out of the very air. Balaam, the priest’s donkey, startles and takes fright. Father Roche, struck dumb, can only marvel at this apparent miracle and give thanks for the deliverance unto his village of an angelic messenger, "a Saint of God."
But this is a Connie Willis novel, and the woman in question is not a saint but a time traveler and historian. Kivrin Engle, a student in medieval history at Oxford, has been sent to the High Middle Ages to observe daily life in 1320 CE and correct the historical record. Unfortunately, she has arrived in Oxfordshire in the winter of 1348, a full 28 years later than she had intended. Meanwhile, seven hundred years in the future, her mentor Professor Dunworthy battles against the imposition of a city-wide quarantine to bring her home.
This is the premise of Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, a novel that won the Hugo and Nebula Awards upon its release in 1992. The novel shares its setting with 1997’s excellent (and exceedingly silly) To Say Nothing of the Dog and is written with the same liveliness and wit. However, Doomsday Book is undeniably a more serious work, at once rigorously learned in its depiction of medieval England (complete with long sections of Middle English dialogue) and its sophisticated references to theology, as well as profoundly moving in its account of the Great Mortality’s arrival in Oxford.
As the title might suggest, Doomsday Book is largely concerned with notions of “the end times” and the ways in which ordinary people act (or fail to act) during times of acute crisis. The title is derived from that of Kivrin’s audio diary, maintained via an implanted recorder in her wrist, which is meant to provide her mentor with a first-hand survey of medieval life ala the historical Domesday Book.
After her arrival in Oxfordshire, Kivrin falls ill and is taken in by a wealthy family in a nearby village of 40 inhabitants. Claiming amnesia, Kivrin is placed in charge of the family's children (their nurse having recently died) and comes to know the people of the village, including the illiterate Father Roche, confiding her thoughts and observations to her recorder.
But what begins as an optimistic account of life in 14th Century England becomes something much darker as the grim nature of Kivrin’s predicament—namely, finding herself trapped and alone during one of the bleakest periods of European history—becomes apparent to her.
It is here that Willis’ slow pacing pays off. For the Plague only reaches Oxfordshire two-thirds of the way through the novel, by which time the reader has spent some 300 pages becoming intimately acquainted with the people of this small Oxfordshire village: their hopes and sorrows, their daily routine, their simplistic faith.
Shortly after Christmas, the plague arrives. Despair sets in. Father Roche prays for deliverance in the same matter-of-fact way in which Kivrin speaks into her recorder. He kneels to confide in God just as Kivrin whispers her diary. She no longer hopes for rescue. She wants only to leave behind a record for her mentor Professor Dunworthy, who remains every bit as absent during these latter days as Roche’s Redeemer-God.
But prayers cannot save the men and women of the village. One by one, they succumb to the plague while Kivrin looks on, terrified, helpless to rescue them from the horror of their affliction. She watches them die, adults and children alike, unable to intercede, so that she is left to wonder how any kind of faith could survive this greatest betrayal of mankind by a nominally “loving” God. It is a testament to Willis’ skill as a storyteller that the reader inevitably must ask the same question. There is of course no easy answer.
Meanwhile, in 2054, a deadly outbreak of influenza in Oxford brings the city to a standstill. The University’s faculty and staff react to the epidemic with resignation, denial, and the occasional feats of quiet heroism. Like Kivrin or Roche, Professor Dunworthy is helpless in the face of this present crisis, which he interprets (despite his own lack of belief) in essentially religious terms. On one occasion, he is even moved to compare his own impotence with the frustration and helplessness of God the father, forced to watch his only son die, and horribly.
But Doomsday Book is at heart an optimistic novel, concerned with the survival of hope in the midst of tribulation, and there are moments of genuine warmth and humor woven throughout. The final chapters are achingly beautiful, suffused with a certain delicacy and longing, and it’s ultimately this light that lingers, not the darkness.
By the end of the novel, Willis has succeeded in imparting to the reader the same lesson learned by Kivrin throughout the course of the book. “Being an historian is not some saintly burden after all,” Mr. Bartholomew reflects near the end of 1983's "Fire Watch," the first of Willis' works to feature Dunworthy and Oxford's time traveling historians. In other words: though we are helpless to change the past, history becomes its own consolation. In Willis' world, it is the role of the historian to observe and capture something of the past as it was and thus restore to the present those lost people and places that are, as she writes, "like all of it, every moment, in us, saved forever" ("Fire Watch," 1983).
In this respect, for all of its SF trappings, Doomsday Book succeeds as an essential work of historical fiction.