Connie Willis returns to the shelves after eight long years with an absolute monster of an epic, a time-travel saga so rich in scope that it's taking two volumes to tell, yet so intimate in its observation of character that what you take away from it are not thrilling action setpieces but those moments of bonding people share — warm, funny, confused, trivial, angry, heartfelt — that take on a new and infinitely greater meaning in the shadow of death. One theme is driven home throughout: time is the most precious commodity we have.
This is Willis's gift as a storyteller. An obsessive researcher, she cares about the effects of great events on individuals, and views the momentous through the perspective of the mundane. In this story, the setting is London and surrounding areas during the Blitz in the late summer and fall of 1940. As in her earlier novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, time-traveling Oxford historians from the mid-21st century hop into their wayback machine to witness historical events firsthand. Blackout follows three of these travelers as they seek to observe, not the activities of the most renowned heroes and villains of the time (there are actually specific rules that prevent historians from getting too close to, and perhaps altering, the events they're observing), but the everyday heroism of everyday people.
I think Willis is living vicariously, as many authors do, through these characters. And that's all right, because what person captivated by the past would not like to project themselves into it once in a while? Willis knows that doing so wouldn't be nearly as romantic as you might think (especially if you're plunging into the middle of a world war). But why let that stop you?
It bears mentioning at this point that Blackout is not the first novel of a duology, but the first half of a single, two-part novel. Knowing this going in will help to smooth any frustration over the way the book doesn't so much end as stop, without a climax, and with just the barest of cliffhangers to lead you into part two. There are also a couple of unresolved plot threads, one of which provides the story with its rare moments of comic relief, involving two additional time travelers. There will be more to learn about these characters in the second volume.
Polly Churchill is transported to London in the midst of the Blitz. It's her task to observe the lives of shopgirls working in department stores by becoming one herself. Mike Davies intends to pass himself off as an American journalist covering the Dunkirk evacuation efforts. And Eileen O'Reilly lands a job among the servants at a wealthy estate in Warwickshire, in order to observe the hordes of evacuee children being sent from London in droves. Everything seems routine, but from the start we can sense something ominous. Schedules for time travelers are being shifted at the last minute. A young friend of Polly's with a desperate crush on her is deeply worried about something. And once the historians arrive at their various destinations, they notice an unusual degree of "slippage," missing their target dates not by hours (which is normal) but days. It isn't long before something potentially disastrous is made plain.
Amid the growing suspense, Willis builds an engrossing work of humanist fiction that avoids pathos and easy sentiment in depicting the quiet practicality and occasional heroism (and yes, the callousness) of Londoners surviving the Blitz. Memorable characters abound, and Willis's gift for natural dialogue brings scenes to life in a way that makes you feel you're in their presence. And she never pulls the lame stunt of creating a character for you to love just to kill them as an exercise in cheap button mashing. We get to know every one of the people with whom Polly shares a shelter every night, like the blustery, avuncular stage actor Sir Godfrey Kingsman, who quotes the Bard every time he opens his mouth yet whose personality rings true all the same. Eileen finds herself saddled with two of the most ill-behaved children in history, and yet you kind of like them, especially because, as a sort of brother-and-sister demolition duo with an appallingly indifferent and irresponsible mother, you realize they've only ever had each other. I'd think one very real risk a time-traveler would face would be to bond with someone from their distant past. See history unfold amongst the people who lived it, and you no longer have the safe emotional distance of words on a textbook page.
Finally, Mike ends up in an unintended situation that makes him fear he's violated the ultimate taboo and done something to alter the course of history, though he's reassured — not always convincingly — that rules regarding "divergence points" would make that impossible.
At first, the little ironies that frustrate Eileen, Polly, and Mike are funny — it seems they're forever just missing someone or something by minutes — then become more and more unnerving as the bombs keep falling. If I have to complain about something, it's that the final third of Blackout feels overextended, with our principals trying and failing to connect with one another over and over to the point it nearly gets redundant. But there is a much bigger story here, and in a quietly profound way, missed opportunities ("For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost."), and the way minor events can influence and illuminate whole histories, play a main role in it. Times of crisis like the Blitz were times when a person might live another day or die based on whether or not they paused while leaving home to put on their favorite hat. When what little time we have on this earth can be snuffed out so completely in such short notice, then there's no time to do anything but look ahead, and never look back.