Note: this is me pondering what it’s like to live alone in what is now the ninth week of lockdown, thinly disguised as a book review. It ends on a cheerful note (I think), but if you are avoiding anything that discusses the current situation, give this one a miss. It also contains one of those trite comparisons to the Blitz that we’re all so sick of, though hopefully in a somewhat nuanced way. Sorry.
Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis, is a great example of why you should give books by authors you’ve previously loved a try, no matters how bad the reviews are. Doomsday Book is one of my favourite novels of all time (though do not read it until the current plague has lifted), but reviews of Blackout/All Clear are incredibly mixed. I can see why – Willis’ flaws are much more on display here, and it needed thorough editing – but I loved it anyway. You do need to know going in that it’s only one book, published in two volumes, because Blackout doesn’t even really end on a cliffhanger. It just stops in the middle of the story (and restarts in All Clear as if they really were just one book). Thankfully, I had been prewarned by a lot of very angry reviews on Goodreads, so I was ready to buy the second book before I’d even finished the first.
Blackout/All Clear is the story of several historians within the Oxford Time Travel universe, in which time travel exists but is used primarily as a research tool. As the name implies, it’s set primarily during WWII, with a focus on London during the Blitz, but taking a tour around other strategically important locations as well. As the historians come to the end of their assignments, they start to realise that something seems to have gone wrong with their ability to get home. In Willis’ world, it is meant to be impossible for historians to change the past, accidentally or otherwise. After all, it would be far too dangerous to, for example, send historians back to WWII, where there’s a possibility that if one of them slips up, they could end up changing the outcome of the war. There are a few added complications to do with the rule that no-one can be in the same temporal location twice. Basically, Blackout is about people gradually figuring out that something is wrong, and All Clear is about them trying to narrow it down and fix it.
I will concede that there are flaws. By this point, I think perhaps Connie Willis had become a victim of her own success and was no longer being as carefully edited. There are things that could have been cut out to make this one chunky 900 page volume, rather than having a combined total of 1410 pages. For example, a sensible editor might have said “this hinted-at romance between a 17-year-old schoolboy and a woman in her mid-twenties is A Bit Weird, Connie, even if you handwave it with time travel”. Also, Mr Dunworthy, despite being in charge of an entire time travel lab and supervising many postgraduate students, apparently still hasn’t obtained a doctorate. There is also a fair amount of repetition in the book, and I wasn’t sure that we needed quite such an extensive tour of Every Important War Place. I have many petty quibbles of this kind.
Also, Willis continues to write English people as if we were a class of mythical being. We do not still tell people we are attracted to that they are “simply smashing” or describe unpleasant things as “horrid” (maybe we will have reverted by 2060?). In All Clear, she branches out into Cockney accents, which are of an extremely Dick Van Dyke quality. And although she’s done her research, her characters aren’t always convincing. This complaint is kind of a minor spoiler: one of the historians has never heard of Bletchley Park or Ultra, and doesn’t recognise the names of any of the codebreakers. I was vaguely aware of Bletchley Park by the time I was ten or eleven, and I’d certainly heard of Turing by the time I was an adult – and I’m not a historian. The premise of time travel in Willis’ world is that it is carried out only by research students and academics – meaning, essentially, that this character has made it through school history lessons, an undergraduate history degree, and prep for an MA or PhD-level research trip to WWII without having heard of Bletchley Park. The first public account of those codebreaking activities was published in 1974, so by 2060, World War II historians should know about them.
Admittedly, the other historians react with bewilderment at her incompetence, and for a long time afterwards they treat her like a combination of young child and dangerous hazard. Even so, it is unbelievable. I don’t know if Bletchley Park has the same kind of cultural importance elsewhere as it does here, but most British people with even a passing interest in WWII history will have heard of the Park and of Alan Turing, at least. Talking about the believability of time travel novels seems a little silly – but the character in question became abruptly less realistic once this happened.
All criticism aside, I still loved these books. The entire premise of Willis’ work is to do with observing and recording how extremely ordinary people lived during extraordinary times in history. Doomsday Book did it with the Black Death, and Blackout/All Clear did it with WWII. Many of the negative reviews I saw complained about this: one said that if she had to listen to any more girls in department stores discussing boyfriends or party frocks when the reader knows their shop is about to be bombed, she’d go spare – but to give Willis her due, she is explicit about this from the start of the novel. All three of the main characters in this book have a research topic that revolves around observing “ordinary” contemps: Polly wants to work with shopgirls during the Blitz, Mike plans to observe the little ships coming back from Dunkirk, and Eileen is supervising evacuees. For me, these banal conversations against a convincingly evoked backdrop of danger is a big part of what makes the book a success. Really, the point of this novel is that individual lives don’t stop mattering during a global emergency – which is something that had more poignancy for me reading it right now than perhaps it would have done otherwise.
In fact, reading a book about a huge global emergency during a different global emergency is a strange experience. While I was reading, I found myself almost jealous of the people in the Blitz. Up to 43000 civilians died as a result of the Blitz, whereas ~36000 have died of confirmed covid-19 in the UK to date*, but there is good historical evidence that the way people countered the terror associated with the Blitz was by helping each other and being together and maintaining as much normality as they reasonably could. In these circumstances, we are positively forbidden from supporting each other in that kind of way. Instead, the only way I can really help is by shutting myself away and refusing to see anybody that I love, and uprooting everything that used to be normal about my life.
Nine weeks entirely on my own** is a long time. It is hard to face a crisis by yourself. One of my close friends has been in (and back out of!) hospital with suspected Covid-19, and though she has recovered well, it’s certainly made the situation feel much closer to home. Most of the discussion on how to ease lockdown here has focused on a) school reopenings and b) letting businesses start to run again – not on addressing the long-term effects of loneliness and isolation. As I read about the cramped and noisy conditions of the tube station shelters, a situation that would normally seem intolerable to me, I found myself thinking how nice it would be to be with people, even strangers, during an emergency. I’m thankful for phone calls, Zoom, and Google Meet, but they make me acutely aware of how much I am not in the same room as the people I love. I normally end up in tears about thirty seconds after I hang up. I’m honestly okay – I’m grateful to still be gainfully employed and not to have lost anyone to this yet – but I see people talking about the consequences of the lockdown as if they are purely economic, and I wanted to provide an alternative perspective. We’re meant to exist in community, and it’s hard to have that pulled from under you so suddenly.
Ultimately, that’s the reason that I loved this weird, uneven book so much. If nothing else, it’s a celebration of faith and kindness and collaborative endurance. It plonked me down in the middle of found families and tight-knit communities and people doing their best to help each other. Reading about close communities proved to be somewhat a substitute for actually being in one. It’s not a stiff-upper-lip-didn’t-we-give-Jerry-what-for type of thing, which is always tedious and has become unbearable in the last few weeks. It doesn’t romanticise the bleakness and terror of the Blitz the way that some novels I’ve read have. Instead, characters are allowed to be terrified, despairing, and resentful – but also kind and resilient and loving. They were lovely people to spend time with. Some of the contemps in the book get up a haphazard amateur dramatics troupe to perform in Holborn during the raids. At one point, someone has to say the line “Was that a gun I heard?” It’s meant to be whispered, but it has to be shouted over the noise of an anti-aircraft barrage gun. It could and should be awful, but someone in the audience jokes “what are you, deaf?”, and the play goes on.
*Of course, there were many other ways that someone could die in WWII, and everyone had people at the front that they were afraid for, and there were fewer people overall so this is a higher proportion of the population. I know it’s trite to do a direct comparison – I am just being honest about the reading experience I had.
**Except for trips to Tesco Express, which have become hugely exciting weekly events. Thank you, Tesco’s staff, for keeping me sane. And now I am allowed to go for a walk with a friend as long as I stay 2m away – though when I did yesterday, a runner fully bodyslammed into me from behind and then told me off for being in his way, so I’m not sure I will be in a hurry to do it again.