REVIEW: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

First thing: Blackout/All Clear is pretty much a masterpiece.

Second: This excellent book about time travelers to World War II is not for everybody. It’s not for everybody in the way that an inscrutable double album is not for everybody.

The reviews on Amazon almost scared me away, especially since the most caustic feedback was left by dedicated Connie Willis fans. Much of their criticism is valid. This is a book that succeeds despite its idiosyncrasies.

Fair warning: you’ll have to buy this book twice. Apparently Willis’s manuscript ran too long for the publishers’ tastes, and so they split it raggedly down the middle into two books. So, unless you’re using the library, reading Blackout/All Clear is not going to be a bargain.

Like many of Connie Willis’s books, Blackout/All Clear drops you into the action with the expectation that  you’ll figure out what’s going on with minimal help from the author. Incidentally, the time travel technology in the book works the same way, dropping the time-traveling historians into the past only roughly where and when they want to go. From then and there, both you and the characters are on your own, and it won’t be easy for anyone involved.

The book is full of the characters’ fretful interior monologues, which can give you the feeling that you’re having lunch with someone distracted by the obsession that they might have left all of their appliances on. But, when it works, the uncertainty will get inside your head. At one point, the suspense got so intense that I had to put the book down.

Nostalgia derives its comfort from the knowledge that everything does turn out relatively okay in the end. Sometimes even the most terrible moments of history can feel safe and familiar. In its best moments, Blackout/All Clear rips that feeling of safety away.

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