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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.