Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Just what is To Say Nothing of the Dog?

First, it’s a book by Connie Willis. Second, it’s what you get when you cross the time-traveling science fiction of H.G. Wells with the cleverness and humor of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s quite a hybrid, but it works from beginning to end.

The year is 2057. Lady Schrapnell – a rich and imperious old dowager – has invaded Oxford University’s time travel research project, promising to provide funds for it if they assist her in restoring Coventry Cathedral, a grand old building destroyed by a Nazi air raid way back in 1940. She bullies almost everyone into the program, forcing them to make “jumps” back in time to locate particular items.

Enter Ned Henry, a 21st century Oxford history student. When too many jumps leave him suffering from a severe case of time lag, a relaxing trip back to Victorian England seems like the perfect remedy. His mistake. Complexities like missing cats, incongruities in the time continuum, and love at first sight make Ned’s “holiday” anything but peaceful. To say nothing of the way an extraordinarily hideous bit of Victorian art can alter the flow of history.

Willis’ book derives its title from the subtitle of Jerome K. Jerome’s comedic classic Three Men in a Boat. A particularly funny scene involves Ned Henry catching sight of Jerome and his two friends in – you guessed it – a boat. After much excitement and a futile effort to explain what is happening to his Victorian friends, Ned realizes that

if [the three men] were just now on their way upriver, Three Men in a Boat must not have been written yet. I hoped when it came out, Terence wouldn’t read the copyright page.

The literary allusions don’t stop there, either. Nods to geniuses of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle abound, adding even more fun and humor to the story.

The characters are delightful. Ned Henry is a likable everyman-type hero who finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of crazy events, dashing to pieces any hopes he had of getting some good R and R. Verity Kindle is a sweet and sometimes impetuous heroine, and you can’t help hoping she and Ned will get together in the end. The cast of sub-characters, including a hapless bull dog named Cyril, is equally well-conceived, and each one serves a unique purpose in Willis’ comedy of errors (and manners).

As far as content goes, there’s little to be concerned about. Foul language is used very infrequently, and when it does occur “damn” and “bloody hell” is as bad as it gets. A few mildly suggestive remarks are made; and in one scene, Ned learns that his Victorian friends have a marked aversion to openly discussing “the facts of life”. (The scene is actually quite tasteful and written in a humorous, lighthearted way).

So, if you’re looking for hysterical comedy with a serious edge, pick up To Say Nothing of the Dog. It is, simply put, brilliant. I’m sure I’ll be picking it up again very soon to enjoy a second romp through Willis’ fantastical tale.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog”

      1. I like the time-traveler science fiction stuff. If it’s kinda confusing it’s more believable. I don’t read much of that anymore but this one sounds unique. I’ll keep my eye out.

  1. What a thorough and delightful book review!

    While I usually don’t have too much interest in science fiction this excellent review has piqued my interest! Fabulous job my friend!

  2. They say taste changes as you get older. I used to love science fiction, but lost interest in it. Your review makes me wonder what happened. I think there’s something out there even more fascinating than the most fascinating sci fi. But your reviews really rock!! :-)

  3. Sounds like an interesting book. Maybe I’ll have to buy the book and read it. Guess
    I could wait until I have a KINDLE and put the book on the KINDLE. Is that
    possible??

    1. I believe you (and one other blogger) recommended Willis’ book to me after I reviewed Three Men in a Boat. Thanks a lot! It’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read this year! :)

  4. I have avoided this book because I assumed it would be offensive (most modern books scare me off that way) so I appreciated your review very much. Sounds like something I would enjoy.

    1. Actually, as far as modern literature goes, To Say Nothing of the Dog is like a breath of fresh air. It’s intelligent, exceedingly well-written, lots of fun, and something I really think you’d enjoy. It reads like a classic.

  5. I read this a year or two ago and enjoyed it quite at bit too. I keep meaning to get back to another book by the author since I enjoyed this one so much. Great review!

    1. Since I enjoyed this one so much, I’m hoping to check out some of Willis’ other works. Semicolon recommended a few of her history books, which are supposed to be quite good as well.

  6. Enough, already! (she protests, laughing)

    This title is running # 2 to “Unbroken” in the category of reviews indicating a must read. (What a strange sentence…but it makes sense to me!)

    Our library has this title. I will get it and read it. As soon as I’ve read my two 1K books. (Friends talk about running 5Ks; I talk about reading 1Ks, heh heh.)

    Thanks for the great review.

    1. “This title is running # 2 to “Unbroken” in the category of reviews indicating a must read. (What a strange sentence…but it makes sense to me!)”

      Makes perfect sense to me, too! :)

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! I appreciate it!

  7. OK, I did not stop, go or collect 200 dollars (or even start writing my comment) before I headed over to Goodreads to add this to my (ever-growing) to-read list.

    Love time travel. Love Britishness. Love delightful characters. Love your review. :)

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