Book Chatter: The Doomsday Book

Book Chatter is going to be a regular feature here on IWtSLtY. Most of the time, it will be about books I dearly love. Occasionally, it will feature super popular books I really didn’t like, but I’m not writing about them just to criticize them; I want community feedback on redeeming qualities I might have missed.

(Spoiler alert: one of those books will be Divergent. I’m sorry if that means we can’t be friends. I’ll miss you.)

But to start on a positive note, here’s a book I think everyone should read: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.

The Doomsday Book

Clicking on this picture should (fingers crossed) take you to the book’s listing on Better World Books. I’m not affiliated with them in any way. I just love their mission.

Set primarily during the Christmas season of 2054, the story follows Oxford student Kivrin Engle as she travels to fourteenth-century England for academic research. A simple two-week trip turns deadly as her caretaker realizes that Kivrin might have been sent into the middle of a plague outbreak — and with 2054 Oxford suddenly suffering an epidemic of its own, help will be very slow in coming, especially since the man in charge of the time-travel lab is convinced that the lab equipment is responsible for the epidemic. As Kivrin’s return date nears, her caretaker struggles to understand what went wrong in the initial operation and how to bring her back safely, as Kivrin faces illness, disorientation, and suspicion all alone in the Middle Ages.

So … sickness, death, helplessness, paranoia, corruption, and disastrous incompetence. All the ingredients for a heartwarming, feel-good tale, bound to join the ranks of Miracle on 34th StreetBabes in Toyland, and other Christmas Eve family classics.

“… and that’s when she saw the buboes. Can you say ‘buboes’, sweetie? Do you remember our little talk about the lymphatic system?”

I’m assuming, of course, that your family appreciates detailed descriptions of the Black Death’s effects on its victims. (Come on, who doesn’t?) It also helps if your family has gone through George R.R. Martin’s five-part training course, A Song of Death and Other Horrible Things Happening to All the Characters You Love. In The Doomsday Book, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of infuriating bureaucracy, and a lot at stake — but from that muddle of confusion and grief, Willis pulls out a sweet story about loyalty whose beauty made me cry just as much as I did for certain characters’ deaths. Willis also succeeds in tempering the tragedy with humor (what does a quarantined town do with a squadron of stranded, high-maintenance American visitors?), and woven throughout the narrative is a haunting conversation about the fears and prejudices inherently surrounding new technologies. Feminist critics, for their part, will find Kivrin’s agency an interesting topic (do her efforts make a difference in the end? Or does her fate depend solely on her male caretaker’s work?), and Willis’s poignant exhibition of our tendency to sanitize history made, at last count, 368 history teachers punch the air.

Though I can see merit in some critics’ problems with the book’s length and pacing, on the whole, I really enjoyed The Doomsday Book. It would be a great gift for the historical fiction buff or science fiction fan in your life, or a riveting bus/lunch/vacation read for yourself. Just make sure you have some tissues handy.


Photo credit: The cover art is a screenshot from Better World Books; the mother and child are from Pixabay.


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