To Say Nothing of the Dog
by Connie Willis
“You'd help if you could, wouldn't you, boy?" I said. "It's no wonder they call you man's best friend. Faithful and loyal and true, you share in our sorrows and rejoice with us in our triumphs, the truest friend we ever have known, a better friend than we deserve. You have thrown in your lot with us, through thick and thin, on battlefield and hearthrug, refusing to leave your master even when death and destruction lie all around. Ah, noble dog, you are the furry mirror in which we see our better selves reflected, man as he could be, unstained by war or ambition, unspoilt by-” ― Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog
The novel, as suggested by the subtitle (How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last), has a plot that is hard to detect at times. It primarily involves time travel itself which is used primarily as a tool for historical research. Although millions were spent to develop time travel as a commercial venture, it turned out to have no profit potential. In this novel the natural laws of the "time continuum" prevent anything of significance from being brought from the past to the future, and also act to keep time travellers away from historically critical events, such as the Battle of Waterloo. One plot thread indicated by the subtitle involves the time travelers search for an artifact known as the "Bishop's bird stump."* However, little progress is made in the search, and the nature of the bird stump is never clearly understood. The scavenger hunt never really developed significant interest for this reader.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is heavily based on Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). In doing so Connie Willis uses the Victorian novel's sub-title as her title, mentions the novel in the dedication, and has one of the main characters, Ned Henry, who seems to know about as much about Victorian literature as he does about any history, often quote Jerome's novel. It led this reader to wonder why he has so much of the work memorized.
The novel is enjoyable at times, but did not gain traction for me. Each chapter begins with a wonderful epigram from a wide variety of people from Lewis Carroll to Darryl Zanuck. I looked forward to these signposts as much or more than the story. In the end this was a good read, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who was not already a fan of Connie Willis or is more of a dog-lover than I.
* Ceramic vase in the form of a tree stump.
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