To Say Nothing of the Dog
“Plans, intentions, reasons . . . A Grand Design involving the entire course of history and all of time and space that, for some unfathomable reason, chose to work out its designs with cats and croquet mallets and penwipers, to say nothing of the dog. And a hideous piece of Victorian artwork. And us.”
Well, Connie Willis has convinced me that time travel is real.
This is the story of Ned Henry and his time-travelling colleagues, who are assigned to recover the bishop’s bird stump for a project to restore Coventry Cathedral, which was decimated during air raids in the Second World War. When one of the time travelers accidentally returns a cat from the past to her present time, the space-time continuum is jeopardized and the only way to fix it is to repair a chain of hilarious events in Victorian England.
I love the little summaries (or timelines) at the beginning of each new chapter. They outline what is about to happen in a way that no sane individual could possibly follow until after having read the chapter, at which point the descriptions become even more humorous. I think it would be a lot of fun to take one of these summaries and try to write your way through from one link to the next to see if you could find a way to make the seemingly random pieces all connect!
To Say Nothing of the Dog is an incredibly complicated plot that features several characters moving through time simultaneously. Somehow, Connie Willis has managed to make this seem completely effortless. The narrative is never confusing or cumbersome, which was a worry for me as someone who is often lost in time-travel or other science-fiction stories. As if the threads of narrative are not enough to keep Willis busy, she also seamlessly weaves in all kinds of literary allusions. Some of these are from books I have read and recognized (like P.G. Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters, or the repeated shots that were taken at the expense of Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in mediums), some are from books I have heard of but have not read (Three Men in a Boat) and I’m sure there were many I missed completely. What I enjoyed most about this was that the story is thoroughly enjoyable whether or not you understand these references, but Willis adds a greater layer of depth to the novel for a reader who is in on the joke.
By far, my favourite character in this story is Cyril. He is opinionated to the extent that I laughed out loud multiple times, despite him never speaking. I found Verity to be quite bland in comparison to the other characters who are colourful and have much more distinctive personalities. I really enjoyed the not-so-subtle parody of the Victorian era through Mrs. Mering and through Clarence’s comments and thoughts about women throughout the story.
In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis takes a funny but heavy view of how little it takes to change the entire course of history – whether it is bad weather, a sniffly nose or simple miscommunications that have started or ended wars, or cats who survive unlikely circumstances again and again to cause endless troubles for the characters in this story. At this point, all I can say is that if you haven’t read Connie Willis, it is time.