Thursday, June 21, 2007

For I am persuaded

"Buried with my own hands five of my children in a single grave... No bells. No tears. This is the end of the world." - Agniola Di Tura, Siena 1347

I just finished Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and despite a few quibbles I ended up liking it very much. I'm not going to write a regurgitated synopsis of the book - if you want to know what its about you can read the Amazon or Wiki synopses. Instead I'm going to cheat and mostly just take snippets from the email conversation Elliot and I had about it earlier today. Oh, and there will be spoilers.

First, a couple of things I found frustrating about the book:

-1 - The illogic of dropping a female historian in a forest in the Middle Ages and expecting her not to be taken too far away from the drop location and for her to be able to find it again in 2 weeks with little trouble; when Dunworthy and Colin go back to find Kivrin they have a *locator device* with them - so what, they can break the rules when its an emergency but not to prevent one? In my mind the fact that the entire plot centered around a drop that went wrong, but didn't have to have gone wrong in quite that way detracted from the realism of the book. (I mean, I know academics are supposed to be a little off, but c'mon!) And I know that Kivrin's being taken away from and not being able to relocate the drop was integral to the plot, but I feel like Willis could have achieved the same effect but set things up so that we didn't question the characters' intelligence as much.

- 2 - The sparsity of character development. You never learn anything about who Kivrin is - her family, her likes, her dislikes, her more private feelings (like for Roche). And the family she's with - Eliwys and Agnes and Rosumund and Imeyne and Gawyn - sometimes they feel like carricatures. Eliwys in particular - you never find out what she's thinking about anything and her dialogue makes her seem so dense. Its too bad because you suspect that she's really a fascinating character and has a story to tell but we're never allowed to hear it. (Actually one could easily make the same argument with Roche.)

And time and again when Kivrin was with Rosamund or Eliwys or Imeyne, I was so frustrated that she didn't ask them more things - like about Eliwys' sons and husband and why exactly they were in Bath (you never find out!) and how old the sons were and whether Eliwys' marriage was a happy one and etc etc - or even show more outright sympathy, rather then just implied sympathy. I mean, Rosamund is a 12 year old child bride who is clearly going through emotional hell and Kivrin recognizes that but does a baffling job of being encouraging. She pushes her towards doing her duty and rarely shares her own opinion of things. Maybe this is Willis trying to have Kivrin be an impartial historical observer, but one wonders who would really be capable of being such under the circumstances!

However, the second half of the book became so intense that I gave up objecting and just fell into it. Despite all I just said about the character development (and my objection stands!), you still manage to start loving the people as Kivrin does (Imeyne and Mrs. Gaddson excluded - I never did stop wanting to slap some sense into them).

Especially Father Roche - I think I developed a small crush on him - well, who wouldn't love a "cutthroat"? This led to Elliot (Claw of the Conciliator) and I having a mini-debate over whether things between Roche and Kivrin should have been *ahem* consummated (hmm... this lends a whole new meaning to "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished"...). They never are. In fact, in most of what passes between them you have to read between the lines and guess at what they truly feel for each other.

Elliot says: "...chaste love can be very classy. And really, the 'priest-breaking-his-vows-for-love' trope has gotten kind of hackneyed. That idea comes up in The Child Goddess, an sf novel I just read, except in this case it's a futuristic female (Catholic) priest, who's broken her vows in the past and now is struggling against breaking them again with the married man she loves."

I say: "Unconsummated love is sometimes better. I kept thinking of how it would have worked if they had done anything and it might have wrecked things. Or it might have been totally awesome like the scene in The Name of the Rose..."

The Doomsday book is steeped in religion (for some reason I wanted to say "dunked," like a donut, but I stopped myself just in...). This is a pretty obvious statement when you think about just how Christianized Britain and Europe had become by the Middle Ages, but this didn't have to be the case for the parts Willis set in "present day" (actually the future - around 2200 AD). She chose to set the entire story - both Middle Age and present day - at Christmas time and include as much religious paraphernalia as she could cram in - complete with numerous visits to church(es), Latin chants, bell ringers and all. She tries to diversify a bit in her present day story by name-dropping a few non-Christian religions that exist, but you can tell her imagined world is at heart a very Christian one (well, at least, Britain specifically is). Though this is a bit annoying, she does manage to do a very good job of showing a broad spectrum of Christian faith - from the absolutely galling, jeremiad-spewing Mrs. Gaddson to the gentle, quiet, subtler faith of Father Roche - and many more in between.

And then there's Kivrin - who, despite my complaints above, is still a fantastic heroine and who goes through what can only be called hell-on-earth. She's swept up in the wake of the Black Death - the most horrific disease imaginable (though one contender has put forth the Ebola virus as a possible second), which historians - as Willis reminds us through Kivrin - believe wiped out up to seventy-five percent of Europe.

says: "I thought Doomsday had a really interesting and sophisticated ending. She rages against God, against the meaningless of it all, which is completely the right and understandable thing to do. I mean, it's the freakin' Black Plague. But then Willis weaves in these hints that Kirvin's presence was actually a blessing, that people who saw her as an angel weren't entirely wrong. The message I got was 'it's not *that* you die, but *how* you die that matters.'"

The questioning of faith and the questioning of time - in the world that Willis has created, a world in which the past is mind-blowingly accessible, Willis questions time's significance: when Kivrin is trapped in the Middle Ages and time is a barrier keeping her from home, friends, and family, there are moments where a feeling that all times are one time comes over her - that the past, present and future are all happening at once - Rosamund and Agnes and Mr. Dunworthy and Badri and Montoya and the Black Plague and Baliol - everything. At her most despairing, with death all around her, Kivrin speaks into her recorder: "Is God there, too, I wonder, but shut off from us by something worse then time, unable to get through, unable to find us?"

I don't think I'll ever be able to get certain lines of Shakespeare or the Bible out of my head, and when I'd finished the book, one came to mind: "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God."

P.S. Elliot says that in Willis' next book, which continues in the same world as the Doomsday Book, Kivrin is mentioned briefly and offhandedly as a church-goer.


Elliot said...

I could be wrong about that detail, of course.

Did we have a mini-debate? I thought we agreed on that point.

Anyways, good insights!

Elliot said...

I wonder if Willis emphasizes Christianity in the present day to point out how much of our culture we inherited from the Middle Ages? Or, at least, was filtered through the Middle Ages?

Clemens said...

"And I, Agnolo di Tura, called The Fat,..."

It's a great and horrifying quote. I read it to my students whenever I talk to them about the Black Death. Sometimes I show them the 'Bring out your dead' scene from Monty Python too. Starting off the way you did convinces me I need to read the book.

75% dead sounds way high - though if you were in the middle of it, 40% would do just as well. We have records of the well-off, well-fed, well-tended town councilors of cities in Italy during the Plague and it is clear that 50% of them died. Like a slow moving atom bomb attack that caused no physical damage to buildings.

This is one case where the dry historical record exceeds the movie, the novel, and our wildest imaginings.

Thanks for the post.

Anactoria said...

Oh, man! No one actually learned was supposed to read that until I'd tweaked it (uh, sorry Elliot)!

So, I'm glad you liked it and thank you - but you may see some edits later. ;)

Yeah, by the time you get to the point in the book where the quote appears you really are starting to emphasize with them for thinking its the world's end.

Willis actually has others say it could have killed anywhere from 50-75%, but Kivrin ends up thinking its more like 75% due to her particular experience.

What do you teach again, Clemens? High school history?

Wow, I never thought about the possibility of teaching about the plague... I thought I'd have to stick to (boring) Canadian history!

Clemens said...

I teach medieval history at a small university. Even write about it some.

And the post looked fine as is.

Oh, and my friend Maire did a whole seminar on the Black Death. It was great.

Elliot said...

I'd love to attend a seminar on that...

So, is it done, Ami? Can I link to it?

Anactoria said...

Um, if its good enough for a professor of medieval history then I guess its good enough for me. ;)

So yeah, go ahead.