I started reading Blackout, by Connie Willis, with some trepidation. While I had loved two of her earlier books, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, the last book I read from her was Passage. I had started reading Passage with enthusiasm, since her prior books had been so good. It was kind of like expecting to bite down on an ice cream sundae and getting a mouthful of broken glass, instead. It was that bad.
So I haven’t read anything else she’s written since then and, for reasons Pavlov can explain to you, was extremely worried when I saw she was nominated with not one, but two books. The first of these was Blackout (followed quickly by All Clear – really it’s one long book split into two).
Let me start off with the positive: Blackout is an extremely readable page turner. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are dynamic and the book flies along. It’s got a lot of the qualities (and a number of the characters) that I loved in those first two books. It features a group of Oxford historians, who use time travel to visit important events so that they can write papers on them. I love the academic nature of what they’re doing, particularly the almost banal nature of the some of the assignments they’re taking on.
However, she has some editing problems. I’d argue cutting material is the number one thing keeping Connie Willis from being a truly great writer. For reasons I’ll get into when I review Blackout, I don’t think this needed to be two books. There was plenty to cut in both of these.
Overlong, repetitious sections aren’t the worst offense in Blackout, though. Most of the time, we know exactly who the narrator is, but Willis occasionally starts (and often ends) chapters without telling us whose perspective we’re sharing. I’m completely baffled as to why she’s done this, since it wouldn’t work in any other medium, particularly when it is a character we’ve met before, using another name. It feels like a cheat because it is a cheat.
When you have to search back through the book to figure out if you should know what’s going on, that’s a bad thing.
Willis seems to expect quite a bit of her readers. This is okay if it deepens the mystery, but we’re talking about minutia here. For example, most chapters end in a cliffhanger, but the nature of the surprise is often baffling. Sometimes it’s the date, or some specific location or event that should apparently be significant. I have a pretty good understanding of the events of World War II, but she seems to assume we understand it as well as the characters do. I often backtracked to make sure I hadn’t missed a page, because that couldn’t possibly have been considered an ending point.
Like I said, this is a page turner, and I will hold out judgment until I read the second part. But Connie’s work has been tarnished for me. It’s like an annoying sound you don’t hear until someone points it out; I can’t stop noticing the flaws in her writing.