Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

1992. Bantam. Paperback. 578 pages.

From: Bought it during Borders GOOB sale.

Recommended by: Ana of things mean a lot

In a nutshell:

As in other novels by Connie Willis, the premise starts with: Oxford historians travel back in time to conduct research. In Doomsday Book, a young scholar named Kivrin gets the go-ahead to travel back to 1320. One of her tutors, Professor Dunworthy, believes the trip to be too dangerous but is resigned to it, and helps prepare her for the journey. His fears are realized however when the technician who sends Kivrin back in time says something has gone wrong and then promptly collapses, gravely ill and unable to communicate further. Kivrin arrives in the 14th century and falls ill herself. She is taken to the house of a noble family and eventually nursed back to health, but soon realizes that she is in danger of not being able to return to her own time.


Last year, I read Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog. This is where I first encountered her time-traveling historians, including Prof. Dunworthy. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, the time travel was mostly to the Victorian age, with a few brief trips to the World War II era. There are some plot similarities between these two books: protagonists arriving in the past in a confused state of mind, obnoxious characters who the protagonists repeatedly must dodge. To Say Nothing of the Dog is primarily a comedy however, and Doomsday Book falls squarely in the tragic camp.

Doomsday Book has two parallel narratives: Kivrin in the 14th century and Prof. Dunworthy in the late 21st century. The first part of the book was incredibly frustrating to read as Kivrin struggled through her delirium to understand what was going on, and Prof. Dunworthy tried to find out what happened to her as people all around him fell ill to a mysterious disease. I appreciated on the one hand that Willis didn’t take shortcuts and made sure that the reader felt the suspense of the characters’ confusion. At the same time, I think she overdid it. Especially in the 21st century storyline, there was too much repetition in the plot. Prof. Dunworthy was forever trying to track some person down, and was forever being bothered by people with trivial concerns. I get the verisimilitude of Dunworthy’s problems, but there was too much time given to them, and it became annoying to read. Dunworthy’s storyline did achieve some moments of poignancy, especially near the end, but it did not affect me near as much as Kivrin’s story. It was her story that made the book worth reading, that haunted me for days after finishing the book.

I loved the relationship that Kivrin establishes with her host family’s two daughters, 12 year old Rosamund and 5 year old Agnes. I loved how believable Willis’ construction of this 14th century village felt to me. There is one scene where Kivrin attends Christmas mass with her host family and you get to share Kivrin’s wonder at living alongside people in history.

I also was quite moved by Kivrin’s developing bond with the illiterate village priest, Father Roche, especially as things take a grim turn and the two of them work together to help others.

At the end of this book, I cried. For several days, I couldn’t stop thinking about this book and the characters I loved. I eventually turned to re-reading a favorite book series to get me out of my funk. More on that in a later post. So yes, I didn’t love everything about the book, but Willis emotionally slammed me by the end.

And now, I think I have to go into Spoiler-land. Please do not read further if you do not want to be spoiled. This is for others who have read the book:


Willis did such a good job in conveying the immense scale of the horror wrought by the plague. I especially appreciated how Kivrin clung to the statistics she’d learned about the plague, trying to convince herself that not everyone in her village would die.

What a way for time to protect itself though. Because Kivrin came through while sick, time sent her to the nearest place she wouldn’t make an impact on history, which happened to be a place where everyone would die. And yet she did make an impact on the lives of those she cared for, as they suffered. [Edit: A comment on Lisa had me look back at the book, and I am apparently remembering it wrong, because the book implies that it was technician error that sent her to 1348, not the hand of Time. I still kind of like my theory though.]

Two characters’ deaths were especially affecting. Rosamund’s death highlighted the apocalyptic feel of the plague-destroyed village. Rosamund did not want Kivrin to leave her because Kivrin was one of the only people left alive in Rosamund’s world. When that apple tumbled from her dead hand, it was just so quietly devastating.

And the other death of course was Father Roche’s. You know, in the middle of the book, I harbored a hopeful theory that he was actually another time-traveler. I was really rooting for him to live. So to have him die was heartbreaking, especially to then also learn from his dying words that he saw Kivrin arrive from the future but thought her an angel, and on top of all that, fell a bit in love with her. Rip my heart out, Connie Willis.

Anyway, end of Spoiler-land.


From other reviews that I have seen of Willis’ books, it’s possible I may have read her two best novels. I have also heard that Passage is good however, so I might give it a shot.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

She Reads Books – “Doomsday Book is tragic but not entirely hopeless. The ending is bleak but strangely satisfying.”

things mean a lot – “They are all characters you can’t help but grow to care about, which only makes the book the more moving. Also, and unlike what sometimes happens in novels with parallel storylines, the plot about the epidemic in Oxford is every bit as interesting as the one set in Middle Age.”

You’ve GOTTA read this – “Speaking of smiling, that was one thing that really surprised me about this book.  Amidst death and destruction, this book was FUNNY!  Yes there was an epidemic going on in the current day, but there was also a stranded band of American bell ringers, an obnoxious over-protective mother of a womanizing student, and a precocious nephew of a professor that was into everything (reminded me alot of my son).”


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6 responses to “Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

  1. It never occurred to me that the net sent Kivrin there to minimize her impact – I just assumed it was operator error (since he was coming down with the flu at the time). I need to think about that some more – thanks!

    • You may be right actually. I read this back in July and was going off of my memory. But looking back on the book, it does seem like it’s saying that the technician sent her to the wrong date by accident. But the Net allowed her to go through to the wrong date with her virus because the people at that time already had an immunity to her disease. I think that’s what I was thinking of, and also time protecting itself was a major theme in To Say Nothing of the Dog.

  2. This did get off too a rocky start, but gosh, the second half was so amazing that I don’t mind the early problems. The business with Kivrin holding on to the statistics struck me, too. In the back of her mind, she must have known some areas were relatively untouched, which meant others would be wiped out, but how could she let herself really know that and go on trying to help? Really good stuff.

  3. aartichapati

    I didn’t follow you into spoiler land because I am reading this book very shortly for a buddy read with Marg of The Intrepid Reader. We, too, were inspired by To Say Nothing of the Dog, though it took us a while to get around to this one. So pumped, though!

  4. Sadly, this is one of those books I’ve heard about for YEARS but I’ve never paid much attention. Now that I’m thoroughly reading your review, I’m thinking I’m an idiot! This sounds right up my alley. Looking forward to diving into some of Willis’s work!

  5. Teresa – Yes, by the end I was completely involved in the story, and that really did outweigh my struggles with earlier sections of the book.

    Aarti – I look forward to reading your buddy posts on Doomsday Book. That’s cool that a lot of bloggers that I know seem to be getting to this book this year.

    Andi – So glad my review could serve as a tipping point for you. 🙂

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