Or: How We Found The Bishopâs Bird Stump At Last
Bantam Books, 1998, 493 p.
I usually like Willis stories – my review of Bellwether is here – but this, the latest in her Oxford Time Travel tales, was something of a struggle to complete. There is a payoff towards the end but that is around 450 pages in so itâs a long time acoming.
The book starts promisingly enough with a scene set in Coventry Cathedral in 1940 during the air raid that destroyed it but too quickly descends into whimsy. Willisâs sympathy with and obvious affection for the material from which she derived her title – Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) – not to mention comic novels and detective fiction of the 1930s, has led her to utilise a series of stock characters none of whom spring to life on the page. There is an omniscient butler, a susceptible vicar, a medium, a convinced spiritualist, an absent minded professor, a put upon maid. The character of Tocelyn (Tossie) is as irritating as her diminutive implies, her initial love interest, Terence, merely a device, his dog Cyril an annoyance. The only character with a whiff of verisimilitude, Elizabeth Bittner, wife of the last bishop of Coventry, barely makes an appearance – though she is essential to the story.
The narrator, Ned Henry, a time traveller from the mid twenty-first century, has been tasked by the overbearing Lady Shrapnell (no prizes for guessing a literary antecedent there) to ascertain whether something called the bishopâs bird stump was present in the cathedral when it was burned down as she wishes to have her replica cathedral, being built in Oxford, correct in every detail. Cue much toing and froing, time-lag induced by too many jumps, incongruities in the time stream, talk of âslippageâ on the jumps and various discussions on historical events such as the Battles of Hastings and Waterloo and in particular the first RAF raid on Berlin in 1940.
Willis is renowned for her introductions at award ceremonies where she will be seemingly about to get to the point before making a digression. This is fine at such an occasion provided it does not drag on but she overdoes it here. At novel length it becomes ever more wearing the more the technique is employed.
Willisâs fascination with UK history has been evident since The Doomsday Book but her grasp of British usage is shaky to say the least. To be fair I was reading a US edition so the US spellings and terms such as ârailroadâ and âtiesâ for sleepers etc I could go with but when it comes to dialogue surely there is a duty to reflect the setting. Here we have innumerable instances of characters saying âgotten,â a Victorian lady – and a butler – use âmomentarilyâ when they mean âin a moment,â frequent absences of âandâ in phrases like âgo tellâ plus no-one in Britain ever says âall tuckered out.â And surely even in the US those flowers are not known as gladiolas?
Overall the tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog was too uneven, the light-hearted elements not in synch with the more serious elements of the story. It was easy to read though.