I also spent a long time listening to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, recommended to me by Rachael. She works in our fiction room (called Popular Library), where I am fortunate to be able to hang out on Sundays, and I've noticed that we have similar reading tastes. She suggested it, it was on the shelf and so I put it in the ears. A few days later, I learned that my favorite teen reader had stayed up all night to finish it. All portents were good!
It's 2054 and historians at Oxford are able to study their preferred period of history by traveling back in time to experience it firsthand. Balliol Professor James Dunworthy is a 20th century historian who has traveled himself, but now he mentors a young student, Kivrin Engles. Kivrin wants to go back to Medieval times, and despite Dunworthy's warnings that it's too risky to travel that far back, Kivrin has connected with his academic rival to help her make the jump. She'll leave at Christmastime to go back to 1320 because the calendar days can be more accurately measured during the holiday. In two weeks, she'll head back to the "drop" to be picked up, hopefully full of information about Oxford and the countryside in the years before the society went to hell because of the arrival of the Black Death in 1348. She has a "corder" disguised to look like a fingerbone, so she can record her discoveries. She decides to call this recording the Doomsday Book, in honor of the Domesday Book, the 11th century documentation of English society in the years following the arrival of William the Conqueror.
When Kivrin is shipped off seven centuries, Dunworthy has to wait for a few hours while the technician, Badri Choudury, pinpoints the drop and the amount of slippage in time. But when Badri shows up at the pub where Dunworthy is waiting, he murmurs something about the wrong time (I can't remember the exact quote) and collapses. Soon, Oxford is in the midst of an epidemic and is quarantined. Dunworthy has to wait for Badri to recover before he knows what happened to Kivrin. But whether Badri will recover is uncertain.
Kivrin, meanwhile, has not landed in the place that Badri told her she would land. And she's suffering from a feverish delirium as well. Through the kindness of a village priest, Father Roche, she ends up in the care of a family of women: Mother, daughters Agnes and Rosamund, and suspicious mother-in-law. It's Christmas time and the women are waiting for the men of the family, who apparently have been detained by some legal matter. Unfortunately, Kivrin was taken away from the drop before she could determine where it was, so unless she can get Father Roche to take her there, she won't be waiting in two-weeks time to be picked up. That may not matter, as only Badri, on the 21st-century side, can tell where she was dropped .
Do you think that reference to the Black Plague was accidental?
I loved this book. I first heard of Connie Willis just a few months ago, when the audiobook of her All Clear was named to the 2012 Listen List. I do like a good time-travel story and so does Connie Willis as she has returned to this premise several times since. I think Doomsday Book was the novel where she introduced the 21st century time travelers of Oxford. Everything about this book was engaging -- the characters are fully realized human beings (and a lot of them are dead by the end of the novel), the historical detail seems impeccable, the building tension of the two time streams is exquisite as we go back and forth not knowing precisely the catastrophe but knowing that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Some sections will make you laugh out loud (academic politics never grows old), others will make you weep. And Willis satisfies immensely by using every hint she drops, every ounce of foreshadowing pays off. I had it in my ears for over two weeks but never felt it was dragging.
As a generally non scifi reader, I found it amusing that in 1992 Willis simply did not see the possibility of a mobile phone. Professor Dunworthy spends significant time in the novel trying to find telephones (and, occasionally, a "trunk" [long-distance] line). Sure, the telephones are picture phones, but they are still very much connected to a wire in the wall. On the other hand, the novel spent absolutely no effort trying to describe what made time travel possible, thank god.
Jenny Sterlin is the reader. I actually have the opposite reaction to the AudioFile review finding her underprepared and lacking the "chops to communicate" the text. She's a flawed reader, no doubt. Her husky voice can sound tired, she gets juicy, her pronunciations are inconsistent, and sometimes I simply cannot understand her (I think that the Medieval mother's name was Heloise and mother-in-law's was Hermione). But, oh my goodness, the woman knows how to pause. She knows how to linger over some text and how to hurry over other sections. When Kivrin is in distress (and the book -- taking its own sweet time getting there -- is so vivid as she fights to the last), Sterlin is riveting, with a voice full of compassion and tension. I could not stop listening, blowing through the last four discs in a day.
Sterlin's characterizations are also terrific, handling a huge cast of characters, and two centuries, with distinction and realism. I wasn't crazy about her characterizations of two of the novel's younger characters -- the spoiled child Agnes who was just a bit precious, and the teenaged Colin who ends up helping Professor Dunworthy in unexpected ways. All his dialogue sounded wildly overenthusiastic, although I can still hear him declare the Black Death as "apocalyptic." Sterlin even has to conduct authentic-sounding dialogue in the vaguely Germanic Old English, before Kivrin's automatic translator kicks in. I've liked her work before, but I thought this was a pretty bravura performance.
There's an art to audiobook production that doesn't show up very often, but I heard it here (perhaps because it was published before audiobooks really took off and it was possible to devote real attention to production). Nearly every one of the 21 discs breaks took place at a moment of high tension, and one (the start of Disc 19 [I think]) delivers a punch to the gut that made me pause so I could collect myself and start over.
I'm so looking forward to the next in Willis' world of Oxford time travelers, which Rachael reports is hilarious. I think I'm going to travel to this year's ALA Annual by train, and may take the Blackout/All Clear duet to (eye) read during the many hours rattling south. Doesn't that sound civilized?
*OK, so there's spellcheck now, I don't have to head into the html side to move images around, and it appears that I can easily caption images, but for the most part I hate it when "they" update stuff. I still can't find anything in the "new" Word.)
[The Birmingham page from the Domesday Book is from Birmingham 1066-1625 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Narrated by Jenny Sterlin
Recorded Books (A SciFi Audio Production [an old imprint I'm presuming], 2000. 26:30