Review: All Clear by Connie Willis

This week we’re looking at the 2011 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel. You’ll be able to find all the posts in this ongoing series here.

After years of successful research expeditions to the past, of observing everything from the layout of Coventry Cathedral to an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348, a group of Oxford history students travels back in time to study World War II…and finds itself trapped in the twentieth century.

In Blackout and All Clear (Subterreanean Press) these students seek a way back to their home time amid the dangers of war-era London: nightly air raids by the Luftwaffe, neighbors who could denounce them at any moment as spies, leaky boats at Dunkirk or even the primitive—by their standards—medical procedures of the time.

Eight years in the writing, the conclusion to this two-volume Connie Willis novel centers on three students who managed  to locate each other in London during the Blitz. Polly Churchill, Mike Davies, and Merope Ward all set out in search of each other because they hoped to find an alternate route home. Now, having discovered they are all stranded, the trio widens its search, beating the bushes for any other historians who might be researching World War II. This already-tricky task is made harder by the fact that students aren’t briefed on each others’ missions, and routinely employ cover names to do their work; Merope has been living as Eileen O’Reilly, for example. But they dare not passively wait for rescue.

Polly’s previous studies have taken her to end of the war. Since a person cannot exist in two places at the same time, Polly will die if she is still in the past when peace comes.

I finished All Clear at my optometrist’s office while I was waiting on those drops they give you to super-dilate your pupils. The drops played havoc with my vision, but after following these young historians through years of war, bombings, and deprivation, I had to know their ultimate fate. I was hooked, in other words: the book had utterly drawn me in. The total commitment to its outcome, with comical shifting around of the book so I could read it with my impaired eyes, was certainly a contrast to how I felt going in. Reading half of a book in February and then coming to the end of it six months later, obviously, wasn’t ideal. Now that both halves of the book are out, I strongly recommend reading them back to back.

That said, there was no question of my not sticking with All Clear. I have been a devoted follower of the Oxford time travel stories since “Fire Watch” in 1983, and of all things Willis for about as long.

One of the pleasures of this novel is the cobweb-thin strands that connect it to all of Willis’s previous World War II missions. Polly, Mike and Merope go looking for the protagonist of “Fire Watch,” for example, and even consider young Mr. Dunworthy as a possible resource to them in getting home. Colin, one of the delights of the mournful Doomsday Book, is a bright light in this novel, too. The book binds all these stories, comic and tragic, into a pleasingly unified whole.

All Clear has the impartial carnage one might expect from its setting, not to mention from the author of Lincoln’s Dreams and Doomsday Book. But it is a celebration, too, of courage and heroism, of perseverance, of ordinary people doing small things to aid in great causes, of devotion, friendship, keeping one’s word. It has funny characters and laugh out loud moments aplenty, but it is no wacky romp, this book, no To Say Nothing of the Dog. At the same time, I found it funnier and, strangely, cheerier than previous Willis novels with a comparable body count.

Like the aforementioned books, this one is an intricate puzzle, to the reader and its primary characters alike. The trapped historians in All Clear spend a goodly amount of time trying to sort out what they know for sure, what they suppose, what they hope and—most of all—what they fear. When did this bomb drop, and are they safe tonight? Might there be a historian observing the Allied code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park? As their residence in besieged London stretches for months, as Polly’s deadline approaches and each of them makes new acquaintances and affects the lives of local residents, each worries that they’ve broken the temporal continuum somehow, possibly so much so that they’ve altered the outcome of the war.

Both volumes of this book, in other words, have a lot of interior monologue. Polly, Mike and Merope have nobody to confide in but each other. They can’t risk being overheard discussing future events: what’s more, they’re constantly lying to one another in well-intended attempts to protect each other from bad news…as when Polly, for example, tries to hide the fact that she’s under a death sentence. There is no shortage of action, but there are moments when it is masked, when the story seems to be playing out entirely in the characters’ heads.

I saw a blog entry the other day, by a reader who said she’d come to know a given author’s “formulas.” It’s an apt phrase, and as someone who’s been reading Connie Willis for over twenty years, I was dead certain I could do the math on her plot, that I knew how the mystery in All Clear would play out. What’s more, I was right…about the first thing. But then there was a delightful revelation I hadn’t seen coming. Then another…and another. Like little narrative bombs, they went off each time I let my guard down.

Willis isn’t just playing with the same old formulas, in other words: she’s still growing as a storyteller and finding ever more powerful ways to blow readers off their feet.

The conversation on Blackout/All Clear continues on Jo Walton’s post here!


A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.

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