Books

Escape to the Past

One of the things I did during my holiday was re-read one of my all-time favorite books, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. This is a science fiction book about time travel and chaos theory, but in the form of a Victorian farce. It was the perfect escape, since the book is kind of about an escape.

In the not too distant future, time travel has been developed and is mostly used by historians to study the past. A wealthy woman is building a replica of the Coventry Cathedral destroyed during World War II, and since she’s funding the history program at Oxford, she’s using the historians to make sure every last detail is perfect. Her ancestor had a pivotal experience at that cathedral during the Victorian era, so this is personal. Our hero has been time traveling a lot back to the war to try to find one particular artifact that was part of the ancestor’s pivotal experience that should have been in the cathedral on the night of the air raid but that seems to have disappeared. He gets a bad case of time lag after making too many trips, and he can’t escape the wealthy donor, so they send him to the Victorian era to rest and recover. There’s just one task he needs to take care of. The problem is that he’s so time lagged that he never actually realizes what he’s supposed to be doing, and he lands in the wrong place, not near the other historian who’s there to try to learn about the ancestor.

What ensues is a sort of Victorian farce of mistaken identities and bad timing as all the efforts to correct one thing in the timeline end up causing more problems — or do they? There’s some mystery (finding out what happened with the ancestor, finding that missing artifact) and a dash of romance, with some bouncing around in time.

I love this book so much. I even took a trip to Oxford, where some of it is set, and found a lot of the locations mentioned in the book. Now I enjoy picturing those places as I read.

It dawned on me upon this read that the main character is Ned Henry, and the leading lady is Verity Kindle, but I honestly was not making a reference to this book when I named the characters in Rebel Mechanics. With Verity, I was using the meaning of her name, truth, and I figured that a professor would name his daughter something Latin. Lord Henry is actually named after my grandfather, whose middle name was Henry. It’s a name that can be upper-crust (all those English kings) and salt-of-the-earth. I’d forgotten the last name of the main character in this book, since it’s first-person narration and he’s usually called by his first name, so his last name doesn’t come up that often.

If you like A Room with a View but think it would have been better if time travelers from the future had shown up to make sure Lucy ended up with the right guy in order to prevent the Nazis from winning World War II and/or the collapse of the space-time continuum, this is the book for you.

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