Review of “Blackout” by Connie Willis

It’s difficult to convey just how good Connie Willis is by merely summarizing the plot of one of her books, since so much of what is good about her has to do with the incredibly life-like characters she creates. Further, her work tends to be classified as “science fiction,” which automatically turns off some potential readers. I think she can [also] justifiably be characterized as a writer of historical fiction. Her research is meticulous and is an added bonus to everything she writes.

Generally, in her books, she starts from a time in the future and has time travelers go back to another period for study. The time travel element is not really central, except that it gives the characters an additional perspective to interpret what they see, and of course, an additional way for plot complications to arise. But it seems to me that the most important latent effect is to give a human face to great historical events.

In Blackout, which takes place in London and the vicinity during World War II, we follow the paths of three time travelers from the year 2060: Mike, Eileen, and Polly. They have come back to witness three key aspects of the war years: the heroism of ordinary Britons from Dover who helped rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, the evacuation of children from London to the English countryside, and the ways in which ordinary Londoners coped with the “Blitz” (the sustained bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between September 6, 1940 and May 10, 1941).

As the characters develop affection for the “contemps” or contemporaries, we can’t help but do so ourselves, for they are so richly portrayed and so wonderfully and idiosyncratically flawed. The time traveling historians discover the same variety of people there are in any age: good-hearted; crabby; loveable; trying; optimistic; sarcastic; heroic; crazy; shallow; memorable. Children play a large part in this story, and they are as Dickensian as you could want: some are so irrepressibly bratty you want to wring their necks, and some so scared and vulnerable you want to rock them to sleep. Because Willis places all of these people in a historic context, she helps us see that not only is history alive, but that the past isn’t so very different after all; it was just earlier. ….

Evaluation: I highly recommend this with a couple of caveats. This is only part one of a two-volume story. Part II is called All Clear. You would probably want to get them both at once. Secondly, if you are only going to read one Connie Willis book (even though you would be missing out terribly on a wonderful author!), I would pick either Doomsday Book (which focuses on the advent of the Bubonic Plague to England) or The Passage (relating to the sinking of the Titanic). Blackout is good, but those two are even better!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Spectra Books, 2010

Awards:

Hugo Award for Best Novel (2011)
Nebula Award for Best Novel (2010)
Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (2011)

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21 Responses to Review of “Blackout” by Connie Willis

  1. JoAnn says:

    I wasn’t wild about Lincoln’s Dream when I read it a few years ago, but have still wanted to give Willis another chance. This one sounds good, but I’ll probably take your advice and choose Dooms Day Book instead.

  2. I haven’t come across this author’s work before, but will be including her on my Christmas wish list this year…my poor husband, what will he choose for me! 🙂

  3. zibilee says:

    I love Willis, but have not yet read this book. I think she has an amazing way of telling a story, and her characters are so lifelike and wonderful. Doomsday Book is one of my favorite reads of the past few years, and I am itching to try more of her books. Great review on this one. I will be picking it, and All Clear up.

  4. Steph says:

    I have really been wanting to try Connie Willis for a while even though I would not say that I am a fan of either sci fi or historical fiction. But she sounds so funny and cool, I know I just have to try her out. I was thinking of starting with Doomsday Book, so I’m glad you back up that decision! Also, I believe All Clear is finally out, so you will no longer have to wait for the stunning conclusion!

  5. I haven’t read any of her books, but when I saw her name I thought, “isn’t she the one who wrote that dog book?” 🙂 So the blogosphere does seem to be recommending her quite a bit to me, just read a review of Dooms Day book recently elsewhere. Will have to give her a try!

  6. I keep meaning to reread the books of hers I’ve already read (such as Doomsday Book, which I loved but don’t remember that well). I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this one and its sequel!

  7. bermudaonion says:

    The thought of science fiction and time travel don’t appeal to me, but since you liked it so much, I’d be willing to give it a try.

  8. Margot says:

    Oh dear, Kathy said exactly what I was going to say. Your review has convinced me to give Connie Willis a try. What did it for me was your claim that she creates “incredibly life-like characters.

  9. Lisa says:

    And this is just another example of why I love following book blogs–I never would have picked up this author, particularly when I would have had to look in the sci-fi area of the bookstore. And yet you really have me intrigued. Adding Willis to the list of authors to check out!

  10. nymeth says:

    I’ve only read To Say Nothing of the Dog so far, but I completely agree with your opening paragraph. I need to read more Willis ASAP.

  11. I’m going to have to check out those other titles you mentioned. I’ve never read one of her books!!!!

  12. Stephanie says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed Blackout as much as I did. 🙂 I received All Clear from Amazon, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  13. Marjorie says:

    If forced to pick only one Connie Willis book, I think I would pick “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” in which takes the time traveling historians back to two, not one era: Victorian Oxford and Coventry during the Blitz. It’s brilliant as well as very funny. She combines riffs on Jerome K. Jerome’s classic “Three Men in a Boat” with elements of P.G. Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and probably a lot of other English writers as well.

    • Marjorie,

      I agree with you that “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is probably the most popular Willis book, although it wasn’t my personal favorite (which in Willis’s case means A- rather than A!) She definitely is very bright and imaginative, and her evocation of communication contretemps is unrivaled, in my opinion!

  14. Jenners says:

    I just love how she approaches her books. I’m all for learning about history via time travel. Thanks for the heads-up.

  15. Julie P. says:

    Both of the topics of her other two books really appeal to me. Glad to discover her through your blog.

  16. Alyce says:

    I absolutely love time travel but hadn’t heard of her books until I posted my time travel challenge last year. You have reminded me that I’ve had good intentions to read one of her books all year. I’ll have to see if my library has the Dooms Day book in.

  17. Sarah says:

    I’d never picked up a Connie Willis book or heard about her when I saw Blackout and fell in love with the cover and then read it. It began a brief obsession with lots of other WWII / London Blitz books. I was so frustrated when I got to the end to see it was book one of two. Still waiting on All Clear at the library, but I can’t wait to read it!

  18. Well, you know me and WWII books! I’m going to see if my library has them. I haven’t heard of this author before, but I’m intrigued by her use of time travel. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  19. stacybuckeye says:

    Willis is an author I have been wanting to try. Thanks for recommending a good starting place!

  20. Pingback: Blackout | Susan Hated Literature

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