All the best novels tell truths and so for me all the best novels are sad. Happiness is false and temporary and boring. Of course, both are necessary for it is only through the one that we know the other. And so all the best novels mix the sad and happy in some true proportion. And here I mean true in the sense of straight, correct, right—usually more sad than happy.
I began to learn this about novels at 11 or 12 years old, when I first read novels that weren’t intended for children. My mother’s bookshelves were full of Herman Wouk and James Michener and Leon Uris. I have not looked at books by such authors as an adult so I cannot say whether the books are good or not by my current standards. But as a pre-adolescent I loved them and Uris was the first writer to which I was obsessively drawn. I read all his novels by age 13. I absorbed his stories about the Holocaust, about Israel and Ireland, and about being a marine in the Pacific during World War II. None of them that I remember end happily.
I loved those books in a naively raw, uncritical way. They felt like real life—very different from the stories I knew before that time. Those previous stories were from the Bible and, despite all the death and mayhem in that anthology of judgment and forgiveness, the emphasis in my upbringing was on the happy ending; heaven was waiting at the end of the trials we endured here on the earth for the those who remained steadfast in their belief and trust in “God.” Eternal paradise was the reward for temporary denial of “earthly pleasures,” for suffering through the pain caused by sin in what would otherwise have been a paradise here.
Uris’ stories had the joy and pain—with a bit more pain than joy—and then nothing else. There was no great reward for surviving; only more of the same. And this resonated for me. It felt good and right and true.
Every book on my top 100 list also feels good and right and true in much this same way. Certainly, there are other factors such as prose style, character, and complexity (see also my comment on the list criteria). But if they don’t feel right, if they don’t fit me, then they don’t make the list.
Therefore, it is high praise when I say that Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book made me cry. But this is jumping to the end. At the beginning, Willis’ tale of Oxford historians who travel back in time to gather first-hand information about the past feels light, even aimless at times. Among all of science fiction’s conceits, time travel is my least favorite. So at this point, the most interesting part is watching Willis paint a hilariously frustrating picture of the many competing demands on the protagonist, Mr. Dunworthy, head of Balliol College:
“Thank goodness you’re here, sir,” Finch said, meeting him at the door. “The NHS just phoned. They want us to take twenty more detainees.”
“Tell them we can’t,” Dunworthy said, looking through the crowd. “We’re under orders to avoid contact with infected persons. Have you seen Dr. Ahrens’s nephew?”
“He was just here,” Finch said, peering over the heads of the women, but Dunworthy had already spotted him. He was sitting, buttering several pieces of toast.
Dunworthy made his way to him. “When Ms. Montoya telephoned, did she tell you where she might be reached?”
“The one with the bicycle?” Colin said, smearing marmalade on the buttered toast.
“No, she didn’t.”
“Will you have breakfast, sir?” Finch said. “I’m afraid there aren’t any bacon and eggs, and we’re getting very low on marmalade”—glaring at Colin—“but there’s oatmeal and—“
“Just tea,” Dunworthy said. “She didn’t mention where she was phoning from?”
“Do sit down,” Ms. Taylor said. “I’ve been wanting to speak to you about our Chicago Surprise.”
“What exactly did Ms. Montoya say?” Dunworthy said to Colin.
“That nobody cared that her dig was being ruined and an invaluable link with the past was being lost, and what sort of person went fishing in the middle of winter anyway,” Colin said, scraping marmalade off the sides of the bowl.
“We’re nearly out of tea,” Finch said, pouring Dunworthy a very pale cup.
Dunworthy sat down. “Would you like some cocoa, Colin? Or a glass of milk?” Dunworthy asked.
“We’re nearly out of milk,” Finch said.
“I don’t need anything, thanks,” Colin said, slapping the slices of toast jam-sides together, “I’m just going to take these with me out to the gate so I can wait for the post.”
“The vicar telephoned,” Finch said. “He said to tell you you needn’t be there to go over the order of worship until half past six.”
“Are they still holding the Christmas Eve service?” Dunworthy said. “I shouldn’t think anyone would come under the circumstances.”
“He said the Interchurch Committee had voted to hold it regardless,” Finch said, pouring a quarter teaspoon of milk in the pallid tea and handing it to him. “He said they felt carrying on as usual will help keep up morale.”
“We’re going to perform several pieces on the handbells,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s hardly a substitute for a peal, of course, but it’s something. The priest from Holy Re-Formed is going to read from the Mass in Time of Pestilence.”
“Ah,” Dunworthy said. “That should help in keeping up morale.”
“Do I have to go?” Colin said.
“He has no business going out in this weather,” Mrs. Gaddson said, appearing like a harpy with a large bowl of gray oatmeal. She set it in front of Colin. “And no business being exposed to germs in drafty church. He can stay here with me during the church service.” She pushed a chair up behind him. “Sit down and eat you oatmeal.”
Colin looked beseechingly at Dunworthy.
“Colin, I left Ms. Montoya’s telephone number in my rooms,” Dunworthy said. “Would you fetch it for me?”
“Yes!” said Colin, and was out of his chair like a shot.
“When that child comes down with the Indian flu,” Mrs. Gaddson said, I hope you will remember that you were the one who encouraged him in his poor eating habits. It is clear to me what led to this epidemic. Poor nutrition and a complete lack of discipline. It’s disgraceful, t he way this college is run. I asked to be put in with my son William, but instead I’ve been assigned a room in another building altogether, and—“
“I’m afraid you’ll have to take that up with Finch,” Dunworthy said. He stood up and wrapped Colin’s marmaladed toast in a napkin. “I’m needed in the Infirmary,” he said and escaped before Mrs. Gaddson could start off again.
The ability to create multiple interweaving subplots and carry them off without completely losing the reader is clearly one of Willis’ many talents.
As the story progresses, things become much darker and Willis’ talent extends to thematic devices, as well. Profound skepticism and despair blend with religious ritual and deep faith, all wrapped around a firm foundation of the relationships humans make with one another. So it is not just the darkness of the book that appeals to me, but also the answer to that darkness: people and the bonds between them.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, people begin to suffer and die horribly. When almost all appears lost, Father Roche sees that Kivrin, the book’s other main protagonist, has gone beyond despair. He calls to her as she walks away:
She turned, and he half ran up to her, his breath like a cloud around him.
“What is it?” She demanded.
He looked at her solemnly. “We must not give up hope.”
“Why not?” she burst out. . . .
“God has not abandoned us utterly,” he said. “Agnes is safe in His arms.”
Safe, she thought bitterly. In the ground. In the cold. In the dark. She put her hands up to her face.
“She is in heaven, where the plague cannot reach her. And God’s love is ever with us,” he said, “and naught can separate us from it, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor things present—“
“Nor things to come,” Kivrin said.
“Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature,” he said. He put his hand on her shoulder, gently, as if he were anointing her. “It was His love that sent you to help us.”
She put her hand up to his where it rested on her shoulder and held it tightly. “We must help each other,” she said.
They stood there like that for a long minute, and then Roche said, “I must go ring the bell that Agnes’ soul may have safe passage.”
She nodded and took her hand away. “I’ll go check on Rosemund and the others,” she said and went into the courtyard.
I don’t know what combination of ritual, human connection, and physical contact got through to Kivrin; I doubt that Willis does either—and it doesn’t matter. The point is that somehow there was a difference and Kivrin was able to carry on.
Even more to the point, near the end of the novel, Kivrin, as part of the report she hopes will someday, somehow make it back to Dunworthy, sends this message to him: “I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened. I know you would have come to get me if you could, but I couldn’t have gone anyway, not with Agnes ill. I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.” If only every human in every time had such a chronicler of the way we face our horrors, have joy anyway, and die with as much dignity as we can find.