All Clear – Connie Willis – Katherine Kellgren

“That’s no way to talk in the presence of ladies, you bleedin’ sod,” the first man said belligerently….
“Beggin’ your pardon, misses. I shouldn’t ‘ave called ‘Itler a little bastard. ‘E’s the biggest bastard what ever lived.”

I think I have an ulcer now. The suspense, the frenetic pace of the book – hurry here, get diverted, rush elsewhere, find or miss that being looked for, if found that thing leads to another search, sprint here and there, hither and yon, at top speed, with constant interruptions and rerouting and balks and blocks and detours and dead ends… Needing to be at point A, and being required to go to point B, and then there’s point C, which is equidistant to B from A… and then point D gets thrown in for good measure, also equidistant. Will they make it?! People squirting off in all directions, appearing and disappearing and obstructing and getting injured and waylaid and oh lord what now without notice. So many interruptions and interceptions and all so very well-meaning, or so very necessary, and … Yikes.

But rarely has an ulcer ever been earned in so enjoyable a fashion.

These aren’t “easy” books. Not only is there the cross-stitch element of time travel to take into account, but Connie Willis isn’t easy on her characters. Oh, sure, the comedy can be flowing – say, Alf and Binnie up to high-larious hijinks … but then a moment later comes the reminder that these two irrepressible vivacious children are, like everyone else in England (most of Europe), constantly under a Damoclean sword, with doom hanging by the finest of horsehairs over their heads. You just never know how it’s going to go – anyone could die (everyone could die), or be left behind, or be somehow discovered, at any moment – or a fellow time traveler could show up, or time could be irretrievably altered…

Connie Willis has an intensely frustrating way of cutting away to one of the side plots – and then bringing that action to a crisis point at the end of the chapter and … returning to the main story again. Argh. And I say that with the greatest respect.

On the other hand, Connie Willis is so easy to read. Her writing is as transparent as good glass – by which I mean it’s so good it disappears, leaving her characters and their settings in full color and three dimensions in your mind. Nothing is predictable, everything is immediate (Connie Willis doesn’t need to use the present tense to create immediacy), and the suspense can be intense. And all the while she will make you laugh –

“Oh, dear. I do hope I didn’t say anything I shouldn’t have. I didn’t confess undying love to some girl fifty years my junior, did I? Or quote Peter Pan?”

– and make you cry –

“We live in hope that the good we do here on earth will be rewarded in heaven. We also hope to win the war. We hope that right and goodness will triumph, and that when the war is won, we shall have a better world. And we work toward that end. We buy war bonds and put out incendiaries and knit stockings—“
And pumpkin-colored scarves, Polly thought.
“—and volunteer to take in evacuated children and work in hospitals and drive ambulances” – here Alf grinned and nudged Eileen sharply in the ribs – “and man anti-aircraft guns. We join the Home Guard and the ATS and the Civil Defence, but we cannot know whether the scrap metal we collect, the letter we write to a solider, the vegetables we grow, will turn out in the end to have helped win the war or not. We act in faith.
“But the vital thing is that we act. We do not rely on hope alone, thought hope is our bulwark, our light through dark days and darker nights. We also work, and fight, and endure, and it does not matter whether the part we play is large or small. The reason that God marks the fall of the sparrow is that he knows that it is as important to the world as the bulldog or the wolf. We all, all must do ‘our bit’. For it is through our deeds that the war will be won, through our kindness and devotion and courage that we make that better world for which we long.”

– sometimes at the same time.

“We must trust in God’s goodness,” Miss Hibbard said, patting her hand.
Mrs. Wyvern patted it too. “God never sends us more than we can bear.”
“Everything which happens is part of God’s plan,” the rector intoned.
Sir Godfrey came up to her, his hat in his hand.
If he has some appropriately cheerful Shakespeare quote, like “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” or “All will yet be well,” I’ll never forgive him, Polly thought.
“Viola,” he said, and shook his head sadly. “‘The rain it raineth every day.'”
I love you, she thought, tears stinging her eyes.

Connie Willis’s writing is possibly the most human I know of. All the variegated emotions of humanity, and the heightened emotions of humanity at war: she’s got them down.

She knew now how Theodore’s neighbor felt. She wanted to shut herself in the cupboard under the stairs and stay there, even if it offered no protection at all. But that was impossible. She had to make Mr. Dunworthy soft-boiled eggs and tea and keep Alf from asking him how it felt to be blown up and Binnie from sharing her opinions of fairy tales, had to learn her lines, practice tap routines, rip ruffles off her costumes and sew sequins on them. And face Eileen’s unquenchable optimism.

There are a lot of books out there (not enough, but quite a few) which feel like I could step into and find my way around. Connie Willis’s world feels like it settles around me as I read – or listen – and when I have to put aside the book it seems strange that no one is dropping bombs on me and that I’m stuck in this time and place.

The narration helps a great deal in that, with these audiobooks. Katherine Kellgren is brilliant and I love her and will listen to anything she reads which isn’t Fifty Shades of Anything.

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3 Responses to All Clear – Connie Willis – Katherine Kellgren

  1. N. E. White says:

    Wow – sounds like a must read.

  2. She is a lovely writer. The Doomsday Book nearly killed me.

  3. stewartry says:

    Nila – it is. Or, even better, a must-listen – it was an experience.

    Kim – agreed completely. I need to read Doomsday Book again. Soon.

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