If you could travel back in time, would your very presence change the future? Connie Willis's novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, Or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last addresses this question and more. The book is almost impossible to describe: It's a farce, a mystery, and little bit sci-fi. And one of the mysteries is, Just what the heck is a "bird stump"?
In mid-21st-century England, historian Ned Henry is sent to the 1940s to track down the bishop's bird stump, which was lost during a World War II air raid. Because he begins to suffer time lag (similar to jet lag) as a result of making too many trips to the past, Ned is sent to the Victorian era for some R&R. But a good night's sleep and peaceful days are hard to come by in any time period.
Willis has written a brilliant take-off on Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (which I reviewed here). Ned Henry's misadventures begin with what should have been a relaxing boat trip up the Thames. The adventures of another time-traveling historian, the beautiful Verity Kindle, begin when she takes a cat through time to contemporary Britain. Ned and Verity must return the cat to its Victorian owner, Tossie Mering, before the whole course of history is changed.
At the Merings' country home, Ned and Verity do their best to set history back on track, but they can't seem to get it right. While trying to break up a mismatched couple, fit in to Victorian society, manipulate seances, and force the Mering family to visit Conventry, Ned finds himself getting hopelessly tangled in the nuances of the space-time continuum. Along the way, he uncovers the mystery of the bird stump, revealing the surprising source of the unraveling of history.
I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis's book is the perfect blend of madcap adventure, mystery, and history. The humor doesn't overwhelm the story, and the relationships and action kept me interested throughout. Although the frame story takes place in the future, this is not science fiction in the traditional sense, and although there is a mystery, the book is not a "detective" novel. The book will keep you laughing (or chuckling), guessing, thinking, and well entertained.
I read Jerome's Three Men in a Boat before reading Willis's book, but there is really no need to do so. Some scenes in Willis's book are derived from the earlier book, and familiarity with Jerome enhances the humor in those places. On the other hand, To Say Nothing of the Dog stands firmly on its own. I highly recommend it.
I listened to the Recorded Books version of this book. Steven Crossley did an amazing job: Each voice was distinct and recognizable, and the inflections, pauses, and expression were near perfect.
This book was part of Katrina's Fall into Reading challenge. To see what others in this challenge have read, click here.
Published by Bantam Books, 1998
Challenge: Fall into Reading