If ever there was a symphony as book (Beethoven’s 8th?), it would be this one. Like a symphony, To Say Nothing is a wonderful composite that is almost impossible to deconstruct. In many books, there might be a chapter that stands out, whether due to brilliance or failure; this is largely a harmonious, excellently written whole, with only one or two incongruous passages near the end. Then there’s the writing: amazingly developed and interwoven, it takes a number of incongruous themes and juxtaposes them. Like a flute soaring above the rest of the orchestra, there are playful little giggles throughout, largely due to reoccurring motifs. Particular favorites include Ned’s bemusement at hearing anarchistic words (“poppycock” and “drat”), unfortunate couples that end in disaster, Ned’s inability to read a Roman numeral pocket watch (“I dozed off again at half past V“) and the fickleness of cats. There are serious undertones, and a sense of urgency; the characters need to achieve their personal mission, but are also extremely concerned about their detrimental impact on history. And, to be completely honest, like a symphony, one needs to be in the mood and willing to pay attention, otherwise it just becomes so much soporific background noise.
The almost-impossible summary: in the year 2057, Lady Schrapnell (is there a more perfectly named character?) has come to England, determined to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, where her exponentially great-grandmother experienced a life-changing event. In her zeal, she’s determined to make every detail perfect (“God is in the details“) and has enlisted the Temporal Physics department of the University to make it happen. The story is told by temporal historian Ned Henry, who has most recently been in 1940, looking through the burned ruins of the Cathedral for the ‘bishop’s bird stump,’ a hideous paragon to the lack of Victorian taste (“It did, however, have twining ivy and a bas-relief of either Noah’s ark or the battle of Jericho.“) His partner pulls him back to normal time when it is discovered he’s suffering from time lag, evidenced by “one of the first symptoms of time-lag is a tendency to maudlin sentimentality, like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold-sober.” His interview in the Infirmary always makes me laugh (“Infirmary nurses usually resemble something out of the Spanish Inquisition, but this one had an almost kindly face, the sort an assistant torturer… might have.“)
Ned is sent to 1888 with the dual purpose of recovering in the pastoral Victorian English countryside and returning an object to 1888 restore an incongruity and preserve the historical timeline. He meets an Oxford undergrad, Terence, and takes an idyllic boat ride down the Thames with him, only to discover Terence is intent on meeting a new infatuation, Lady Schrapnell’s great(s)-grandmother, Tossie. While she has not attained the bossy demeanor of Lady S., she nonetheless has almost everyone falling in line with her ridiculous plans that include a seance and a jumble sale.
What follows is a comedy of errors as the time-traveling historians attempt to keep the young would-be lovers separated. The historians are convinced Tossie needs to fall in love with an unknown man with the initial ‘C’ and begin combing the countryside for eligible (and not-so-eligible) bachelors. Accompanying them is a genuine Oxford don distracted by fish and history, a tenacious and fierce bulldog named Cyril, and a black cat. As cats are extinct in the modern era, poor Ned is particularly unskilled in managing them:
“I set her down, and she walked a few feet across the grass and then took off like a shot and disappeared round the corner of a wall.
I told you so, Cyril said.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Go after her,” I said.
Cyril continued sitting.
He had a point. Our chasing after her in the woods hadn’t been a roaring success. “Well, what do you suggest then?”
He lay down, his muzzle against the milk bottle, and it wasn’t a bad idea.“
A caveat: this is not hard or traditional science-fiction. The most science fiction-like aspect supposes that time travel is possible, but only in ways that don’t affect the past or allow travelers to bring objects into the future. The field is known as temporal physics, and it while it is still being explored, incongruities–artificial changes to the timeline–could “theoretically could alter the course of history, or if it were severe enough, destroy the universe.” Luckily for us, the universe is self-repairing, and has lines of defense that might manifest as an increase in coincidental events. We learn this in brief scenes between the time travelers and it’s artfully done.
Characterization is wonderfully done. The historians are well-developed and multi-dimensional. I confess I especially love Cyril, who is completely dog-like but provides a silent foil for Ned’s thoughts.
While I recognize the style and pace won’t appeal to everyone, especially the action-adventure reader, I’m ridiculously fond of this book. I’ve re-read it numerous times, especially when I want to be in a book holding pattern, reading something familiar and enjoyable that didn’t keep me up until 2 a.m. reading. I’ve read it so many times that I find myself quoting it, even if no one else gets my references. In fact, I once slightly embarrassed myself by exclaiming, “a genuine Oxford don!” courtesy of the passage, “I sat there watching him examine the fish and marveling at what we’d caught. A genuine eccentric Oxford don. They’re an extinct species, too.” Well, he was a genuine eccentric don, after all–he studied voodoo and death practices.
Anyone who reads my reviews knows I have a fondness for the well-turned phrase, but while I often smile reading this book, the humor is built up over repeating passages rather than the standard quip. This is gentle, suspenseful, silly, romantic and sophisticated reading. Filled with literary references and philosophizing on the importance of individuals in history versus scientific principles, someone with a classic background might best appreciate the wide-ranging references, but despite my own infirm education, I didn’t find them inaccessible. If you enjoy Bertie Wooster, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Lord Peter mysteries, history, gentle comedic romance and literary references, the sly wit in this book will keep you entertained.