I have enjoyed Connie Willis --her “Doomsday Book” is an exceptional piece of work.
But this particular novel was really, as Shakespeare said; a great deal of “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
In a nutshell: the time travel that is utilized in the Doomsday Book so effectively is used here to send folks, especially Ned Henry and Verity Brown hither and yon to retrieve the “Bishop’s Stump” a strange name for an elaborate flower vase stand that stood in England’s Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed in a blitz in late 1940.
A very wealthy woman named Lady Schrapnell is determined to rebuild the cathedral in 2057 with everything intact and as authentic as can be made. Her motto is: “God is in the details.”
So the expensive resources of the time travelers are being used to flit in and out of time to make sure they have all the specifics for the reconstruction down to the correct prayer books and the choir boys’ linen surplices.
Verity and Ned are admonished firmly to avoid creating “incongruities” in the time line so they must be very careful not to disturb things as history recorded them, in this case, mostly diaries and newspapers. Like tip-toing through a briar patch and being cautious not to snag any clothing or skin. But Verity and Ned are not the only ones sent to find the Bishop’s Stump, there are several others. Admittedly, it is funny having all these future folks running about amongst the real people of 1888 (The year that’s picked as a nexus of events that may affect the acquiring of the artifact). They work hard at blending in while still on the hunt to obtain the cathedral relic. And to add to every one’s anxiety; they have to meet the fast-approaching deadline imposed by Lady Schrapnell for the public re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral.
No matter how convoluted their scheduling is and their constant re-adjusting of parameters---The Bishop’s Stump eludes their grasp because in use, the time-traveling device is not quite exact. So, we are subjected to the constant revisiting of the same few places as the time jumps are continually recalibrated.
We get plunged into an English comedy of exquisite Victorian manners filled with bucolic ladies and gents: professors from Oxford, a rather tedious student named Terence spouting poetry in reply to just about any question asked of him. There’s a proper English miss called Tossie who speaks in very annoying baby-talk and a plethora of butlers and maids keeping everyone supplied with, well, whatever is ordered.
We also get some boating on the Thames, rainstorms, the hunting down of a cat called Princess Arjumand, a retired Colonel who collects spectacular, expensive gold fish and whose wife is deep in the snares of spiritualism: séances, rapping and floating specters.
This should be a charming lark, a veritable delicious cornucopia of Victorian manners, mores and minutiae in 1888.
Sadly, for me it wasn’t. I dragged myself through this book hoping the tangle of events would get to something meatier than jumble sales, missed trains, engagements and tracking down the Bishop’s Stump.
Really. The mists clear, the time travelling finally stops---and all is right with the new Coventry Cathedral in the end.
And I get it---for “want of a nail” the kingdom was lost (to paraphrase that famous quote). But the details here were so trivial and multitudinous; I just lost interest in the bigger picture Willis was trying to paint. Because nothing with any real impact happens as the characters stumble about. They are constantly going over the same territory.
This was as floopy an excuse for a novel as I have ever read. Not much substance: just a thin watery sauce and half-melted candied violets spread on…the Bishop’s Stump.
As I said at the beginning: A Great deal of Sound and Fury Signifying nothing.
Read the “Doomsday Book:” it’s a lot more satisfying than this. ~~ Sue Martin
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