One of the anticipated joys of travelling is more time to read. This year, I took Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book with me. I read a reference to it in this post. At the time, I was reading a different book about the medieval plague, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders. I decided to read Willis next.
But it's a big book, and I've been having trouble making progress. However, during my time away, I devoured it--amazing what having no computer access can do.
The book revolves around time travel--a researcher is supposed to go back to a time in the medieval period before the plague arrives in England, but something goes wrong, and she arrives just in time for the arrival of the plague.
The book also revolves around the idea of disease. The researcher is stranded because back in the current time, a strange strain of flu begins to sweep through the city. At the end of the book, we find out that the lethality rate of the flu was 68%--not quite as bad as the 90% mortality rate of the plague strain that the time travelling researcher experiences, but it's easy to imagine that in more challenging circumstances, with lack of medicines and fluids and soap, the lethality rate would be higher.
It's a book that also has some interesting meditations on religion, especially at the end. The time traveler talks into her recorder, even though she's unsure that anyone will hear her. She says, "He [the priest for the village] continues to say matins and vespers and to pray, telling God about Rosemund and who has it now, reporting their symptoms and telling what we're doing for them, as if He could actually hear him. The way I talk to you. Is God there, too, I wonder, but shut off from us by something worse than time, unable to get through, unable to find us?" (p. 348).
Even more daringly, Willis connects the time travel with the Christ story. There's an interesting meditation in this passage that haunts me: "God didn't know where His Son was, Dunworthy thought. He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn't get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross" (p. 366).
Both narratives also deal with the issue of hospitality, of being a stranger in a strange land, of being stranded and how we cope. It also explores how humans deal with the unexpected and the strange, and why we panic or don't. It has all sorts of lessons for us as we deal with the Ebola crisis--and a good reminder that flu has been far more lethal throughout history.
Willis' book was published in 1992--why haven't I discovered it before? I think about 1994 or so, when I started to research the plague and its impact on early British literature. I read Plagues and Peoples, but no fiction. I read Laurie Garrett's excellent The Coming Plague, where I first heard about Ebola. The Doomsday Book deserves a spot beside them.
For those of us interested in medieval religion, this book can give interesting insight. I find my thoughts drifting back to the depiction of the Christmas Eve mass, which will be a much different service than the ones that many of us will enjoy in just 2 months.
The village priest n the book comes from a much lower caste than the priests that the gentry matriarch wishes she could have. We see some of those priests come to the village--but they are not of much use during a crisis. The book gives an interesting counterpoint to the common wisdom that many priests abandoned their parishes during times of plague.
Experts tell us that we are long overdue for a pandemic that will have the scope of the medieval plague or the 1918 flu or the flu in the book. As religious people, how will we react? This book gives us some wisdom.
feeling the feelings…
6 months ago