Connie Willis created a beautiful piece of time travel/historical fiction with ‘Blackout.’ Depending on how you want to look at this book it is either the first book in the All Clear series or the third installment of the Oxford Time Travel series. ‘Blackout’ includes characters from ‘The Doomsday Book’ with Colin Templar and Mr. Dunworthy. They are not the stars of this double-decker novel but they do play very important roles. ‘Blackout’ revolves around three historians from the future sent to observe different key events during World War II. ‘Blackout’ is the story of what happens when their assignments end but they can’t get back home. They either can’t get to their drops or they are damaged and won’t work. Oxford should send a retrieval team. ‘Blackout’ is what happens when they don’t show up.
I’ve read this and ‘All Clear’ three times. I’ve listened to them and read them and enjoy it both ways. What Connie Willis does extraordinarily well with these books is make the experience of the everyday person who didn’t enlist in the war accessible. During World War II people in London were shop girls, children, and old men. She focuses on the every day heroics of the people who lived at the time and took the famous words of Churchill to heart, ” Keep calm and carry on.” These words that have been appropriated by a new generation were originally meant to steady a people who were sleeping in bomb shelters and waking to find their homes and places of employment bombed. People who would never have been thought of heroes are highlighted as old clerics joining the fire brigade to keep St. Paul’s safe, the shop girls who signed up to become Ambulance drivers and WRENS, children under the age of 16 who were collecting scrap metal and lying to become ARP wardens. Willis paints a realistic picture of rationing and living conditions during one of the coldest, wettest, and bleakest winters in England during 1940. Our historians experience this from the perspective and benefit of privilege. They are from the future where the living conditions and medical breakthroughs make life much easier. They haven’t had to deal with shortage. They are historians and they researched the conditions but research and experience are two different things. They have the advantage of knowing that they win the war but the tables are turned when they can’t get home. There is a fear that they have changed events. What if they did something to alter the course of the war? They become the contemporaries they were studying. Their only hope is to find other historians studying World War II. If they can find another drop site they will have found a way home.
Willis explores the invasion of Dunkirk, experiences of the evacuated children, the fall of the service class, the Blitz, and the V1 attacks. Her research is solid. She did eight years of research to complete these two books. Some have found the books to be daunting and long due to the amount of detailed historical information included. This, however, is what makes this book special for me. She provides great information sources, but one in particular caught my attention. She utilized the Mass Observation Diaries heavily and credits them as being invaluable. The diaries came from observers and volunteers in London recruited by Mass Observation. Harrison founded the organization in 1937 with Madge and Jennings to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. The writers chronicled the lives of ordinary people in Britain. By luck, the study neglected to tell the volunteers writing the journals the study was ending prior to the start of World War II creating an amazing resource of first hand accounts detailing the everyday lives of Brittish citizens during the war. Follow this link to find out more about the original Mass Observation project. I can see why some people would have a hard time engaging in the All Clear Series. It is a commitment to read them. Blackout is 512 pages and All Clear is 643 pages. Willis refers to them as a double-decker novel because Blackout ends abruptly and starts up immediately with All Clear. Many have argued it should have been one book, but if two is a bit unwieldy one would have been extremely off-putting. You will want the sequel immediately. Plan to either download ‘All Clear’, buy the physical book when you get three fourths of the way done, or download the fabulous narration by Katherine Kellgren immediately after finishing ‘Blackout.’
I do not recommend this for people with a short attention span, or those who are looking for a light read. It is hopeful, but it is also drenched in data. If you want a light time travel piece I would encourage you to pick up Rysa Walker’s ‘Timebound’ or ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor. ‘Blackout’ is a great time travel novel and is a personal favorite. Rarely have I seen an author be able to weave such great fiction around factual history. Usually you get one or the other. If you enjoy historical fiction with the added enjoyment of science fiction time travel this is perfect for you.
If you like this you may like:
– The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
– Crytonomicon by Neal Stephenson