Tuesday, October 26, 2010

All Clear by Connie Willis

All Clear at last!

In writing this “review” I need to exercise great restraint. It would be easy to turn it into a bombardment of superlatives as I try to say how much I enjoyed Connie Willis’s All Clear. But I can’t help indulging myself with at least one word that keeps jumping into my mind. Maybe using that single word will give enough satisfaction to allow me to move on. It’s not a word that I recall using often but at the moment it seems the most appropriate to use.

All Clear is a MAGNIFICENT book.

It is complex without being complicated, weaving separate threads of time and multiple characters into a tight and cohesive story that I didn’t want to leave. It had twists, turns, surprises and puzzles as well as creating some vivid images of wartime London.

Willis’s characters are the core of the book. Time travelling historians, delinquent children, a venerable actor, shop girls, ambulance drivers, intelligence officers and clergymen give a human face to the horrors of a war where civilians were regularly the victims.

The central characters are historians from mid 21st century Oxford, part of a project utilising time travel to study the past. They were introduced in Blackout, the first volume of the story. Britain is at war and each of them is studying a different aspect of wartime England.

At the end of Blackout, they are trapped in London during the Blitz. They were afraid they had somehow interfered with events and changed the direction history had taken – maybe even altering the outcome of the war. This fear seemed to be confirmed when the casualties at the bombing of a department store exceeded the number recorded in historical accounts.

All Clear brings the story to its conclusion. Written as one long novel, the publishers decided to release the story in two volumes, thinking the modern reader could not cope with book of over 1100 pages.
In my review of Blackout I said it ended with a whimper. So hopefully the few months wait between volumes hasn’t discouraged any readers from completing the journey: but unfortunately that may be the case.

Those who don’t return will miss out on the experience that Willis intended to share, with the whole story presented as a united whole. The biggest obstacle to reading All Clear was trying to pick up a story that had been put aside months ago. It took a while to become reacquainted with the interwoven plots spread across different wartime periods. But it was worth the effort. After a chapter or two I was caught up again in the character’s lives. One day I hope to get the chance to read the whole story as it was intended by the author – from beginning to end without a disruptive break in the middle.

Why did I like the book so much? It has an all round richness and depth. There’s nothing shallow or simplistic about it. It gives the mind a workout without becoming convoluted and confusing, dealing with one of science fiction’s most iconic conundrums – the potential effects of changing the past and how it would affect the future. The characters are given time to develop and grow, drawing the reader in to experience their emotional journey through very difficult and unknown territory. It deals with the heroic as well as the horrific with occasional humour to balance the growing tension. Willis is able to do all of this without resorting to anything cheap, gratuitous or potentially offensive.

Yes, with its use of time travel the book is built upon a science fiction foundation, which will probably be a stumbling block for some potential readers. That is unfortunate because they will miss out on a very rewarding journey that has very little to do with scientific speculation. This book is about people, relationships and how the worst of experiences can bring out the best of human character.

I loved it.


Thanks to Allen & Unwin,the publishers of this book in Australia for sending me a review copy.

See here for their All Clear webpage:

NOTE: Allen & Unwin were not responsible for the decision to divide this story into two parts.

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