Bells and Echoes: The Craft of DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis

Connie Willis's Doomsday Book is one of my favorite books, and also one of the best books ever written. It is a masterpiece.

It's also extremely sad, and happens to be about deadly epidemics. So I'll start by saying that depending on what you've experienced in the past year, this may not be the book for you right now. Alternately, it might be exactly the book for you right now. I think it depends on whether and how much you're grieving, whether you've been traumatized, and whether it helps you, as you process, to share those feelings with people inside a book. For me, this can be a touch-and-go sort of question… When is a book comforting, and when is it exacerbating my difficult feelings? I've read this book before, so I knew what I was getting into last week when I sat down to reread it. For me, it helped me access, and settle, my own overwhelmed, confused feelings from the last year. But I say that as a person who is not a COVID nurse or doctor and has not lost a loved one to COVID-19. I am, however, a person with PTSD. As such, I'd advise that if you've been spending anxious time at someone's sickbed — or not been allowed to spend time at their sickbed, only allowed to imagine it — or if you're one of the overworked caregivers — this might be a book to save for another time. Among other things, it contains a lot of graphic descriptions of human sickness and suffering. It also puts you inside the head of a character who's gradually being traumatized by the sadness and death around her. Please spare yourself, if that's not a good headspace for you right now. (This post, on the other hand, will contain no graphic descriptions, and I don't linger on the trauma.)

I'll also say that, maybe moreso than the other posts in my craft series, this post will contain some plot spoilers. Not all the plot spoilers! Willis does some excellent weaving that creates surprises for the reader I won't reveal. But it's impossible to talk about this book without revealing some important plot points. If you don't want to know, stop reading now. (If you're undecided, I can say that it's thrilling reading even if you know what's going to happen.)

First, a little background: The conceit of Connie Willis's time travel books (each of which is wonderful) is that in the mid-twenty-first century, historians in Oxford, England conduct fieldwork by traveling back in time to observe other eras. This is not the kind of time travel story we're all used to in which the plot hinges on the time traveler changing the course of history, or the story getting wound up in complicated paradoxes. The "net," which is the machine that makes time travel possible in this book, doesn't allow time travel that will alter the course of history. And though some of Willis's other time travel books do deal with the paradox issue (sometimes hilariously), that's not the point of Doomsday Book. This is a different kind of time travel book.

In Doomsday Book, Kivrin, a young Oxford historian in December 2054, is set to travel back to the Oxfordshire of December 1320, to observe the lives of the locals at Christmas in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, on the very day of Kivrin's travel, a new influenza virus arises in 2054 Oxford, and the tech responsible for running Kivrin's travel coordinates (or, "getting the fix"), Badri Chaudhuri, falls ill. He doesn't know he's ill — no one knows Badri is ill — until it's too late. In the disorientation of his illness, Badri gets the coordinates jumbled, and Kivrin is accidentally sent to December 1348 — which is when the bubonic plague reached Oxfordshire. The circumstances of Kivrin's passage ensure that it's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get her back to 2054. Kivrin is trapped.

The novel then alternates between 2054/55, where a frightening new influenza epidemic is arising, and 1348, where Kivrin is gradually coming to realize what's about to befall the people around her. Connecting the two timelines is an Oxford historian named Mr. Dunworthy, a deeply caring and pessimistic man who is desperately trying to figure out how to rescue Kivrin from her accidental fate, and bring her back to 2054/55. (For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to keep referring to the future timeline as 2054 from this point on, even though the year turns to 2055 partway through the novel.)

Incidentally, that plot twist I just casually revealed — the one where it turns out Kivrin is in the year 1348 instead of 1320 — isn't revealed to the reader until page 384. Willis's slow and brilliant pacing, her careful, drawn out reveal of the horror that has happened and the horror that's coming, is one of the magnificent accomplishments of this book. It's not what I'm planning to talk about today, though. In truth, I could write a long series of craft posts about "Things a Writer Could Learn from Doomsday Book." But today I'm going to single out one of the things I took from my latest reading: namely, her construction of parallel characters in separate timelines.

All page references are to the 1992 Bantam Books mass-market edition, though I've also listened to the 2008 Recorded Books audiobook narrated by Jenny Sterling, which is excellent (and deliciously long!).

Before I dive deep into Willis's construction of parallel characters, I want to speak more generally about the potential for parallels — echoes — inside a book, when that book takes place in multiple timelines. Many books do take place in more than one timeline, of course, whether or not they involve time travel! And there's so much you can do with that kind of structure. As you can imagine, life in Oxfordshire in 1348 is dramatically different from life in Oxford in 2054. But Willis weaves so many parallels into these two stories, big and small things, connecting them deftly, and showing us that some things never really change. I suppose the most obvious parallel in this particular book is the rise of disease. The less obvious is some of the fallout that follows the rise of disease, no matter the era: denial; fanaticism; racism and other prejudices; isolationism; depression and despair; depletion of supplies (yes, they are running out of toilet paper in 2054). She also sets these timelines in the same physical location, the Oxfords and Oxfordshires of 1348 and 2054 — the same towns, the same churches. Some of the physical objects from 1348 still exist in 2054. She sets both stories at Christmas, and we see that some of the traditions are the same. She also weaves the most beautiful web between timelines using bells, bellringers, and the significance of the sound of bells tolling. 

Simply by creating two timelines, then establishing that some objects, structures, and activities are the same and that some human behaviors are the same across the timelines, she can go on and tell two divergent plots, yet create echoes between them. These echoes give the book an internal resonance. (Are you starting to appreciate why it was so thematically smart for her to bring bells to the forefront of her story?) They also give the book a sense of timelessness. It becomes one of those masterworks that presents the best and worst of humanity in all times, for the reader to see and recognize. Epidemics lay us bare. In all times, people are bound by the limitations of their scientific knowledge. In all times, people (the good ones and the bad ones) struggle to find a bearable framework, a way to conceive of the horrors without succumbing to despair. And in all times, some people respond with kindness and generosity, working themselves to the bone in order to help others; and some people allow their fear to turn them into selfish, craven, unfeeling hypocrites, striking out at others in defense of themselves. By letting these echoes ring across the timelines of her book, Connie Willis captures her themes magnificently.

And now I'm going to focus on the echoes in her character-building: on the way she creates characters who are unique individuals, yet who strike the reader with extra force because of the ways they parallel each other across time. I'll offer a range of examples. Some are small, isolated moments in which characters from 1348 and 2054 perform similar activities. Some are people who have similar attitudes or spirits, even as they perform different roles. Most of them are loose parallels, drawn with a light touch. One of the parallels is quite clear and deep, two people who are characteristically similar, to the point where you feel like one could practically be the 2054 version of the other. This is one of Connie Willis's special skills: she draws her parallels lightly in some places, heavily in others, never hamfisted, none of them tied too tightly, all of them open to interpretation, and all of them reaching for her larger, more timeless themes about what it means to be human. 

 

Smaller Parallel Moments

I'll start with a few moments that are brief, but also plainly deliberate.

Here's one: There's a moment when Agnes, a five-year-old girl from 1348, tries to feed hay to the cow, but is clearly afraid of the cow. First she holds the hay out "a good meter from the cow's mouth" (304), then she throws the hay at the cow and runs to safety behind Kivrin's back. 

Skip ahead to page 551, where Colin Templer, a twelve-year-old boy from 2054, is trying to feed a horse. He offers "the horse a piece of grass from a distance of several feet. The starving animal lunged at it and Colin jumped back, dropping it" (551).

Moments like this are brief and might seem insignificant, but they do a lot of heavy lifting in the text. This particular parallel is funny, but also sad, because while Colin Templer is one of this book's bright gifts to the reader — he's incorrigible, he's funny, he lives — by the time we see him feeding that horse, Agnes has died of the plague.

Here's another detail that resonates within the book, and will also resonate with present-day readers: Both in 1348 and 2054, people with medical knowledge implore laypeople to please, please, put on their masks. (This happens here and there, but see pages 345 and 440 for a couple examples across timelines.)

And here's one last small behavioral parallel: In 2054 Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy's assistant, Mr. Finch, is stuck caring for a team of American bellringers trapped in the Oxford quarantine. The bellringers, who start out as pretty annoying characters, gradually begin to endear themselves to Finch (and to the reader), and Finch begins to practice bellringing with them. He gains a true appreciation for how heavy the bells are and how challenging the art of bellringing is. Then we see the bellringers begin to come down with the influenza, and cease to be able to ring their bells (Chapters 21 and 24). 

At the very end of the book, this is echoed when Kivrin, still in 1348, is trying to toll the church bell to send the souls of the dead to heaven, and Mr. Dunworthy, who's traveled back in time to find her, is trying to help her. She's injured. He's having an influenza relapse. Between them, they can barely manage it (pages 566-567). The physical challenges of bellringing connect across time.


Broader Character Parallels

There are also some broader parallels drawn between characters, especially between characters' roles in their respective pandemics. For example: In Oxford 2054, Dr. Mary Ahrens is at the head of the effort to locate the source of the influenza, sequence it, and find a vaccine. She cares for her patients tirelessly. Her 1348 parallel is Father Roche, who of course has none of her scientific knowledge, but has a similar fervent devotion to helping other people. Roche hardly sleeps in his efforts to care for his parishioners as they fall sick with the plague. 

The reader cares deeply for both of these characters, probably because of their tireless competence and their selfless dedication to other people. When first, Dr. Ahrens dies of the influenza, and then, Father Roche dies of the plague, it is, at least for this reader, the book's most heartbreaking echo.

I'll note that one of the things that makes this parallel so effective is that it doesn't map perfectly. Dr. Ahrens and Father Roche are drastically different in their approaches — one is pure science and one pure religious faith — and also, they aren't each other's only character parallels. Kivrin, too, tirelessly cares for the plague victims in 1348, with a lot more scientific knowledge than Father Roche has. In 2054, many different kinds of doctors and nurses are caring for lots of patients, in lots of different ways. Twelve-year-old Colin is also caring for people, in his cheerful and forthright way. Mr. Dunworthy's overburdened and tireless assistant, Mr. Finch, is constantly in the background of the 2054 timeline, moving mountains to turn college halls into infirmaries, find food and supplies for everyone stuck in quarantine, and care for the American bellringers. A lot of varying people step up to become caretakers, differing from each other and paralleling each other in all kinds of fluid and inexact ways.

Also, the book is chock-full of characters who don't necessarily map onto parallels with anyone, but have other important functions in the book. In 2054, a young Oxford student named William is having liaisons with practically every female nurse and student in the quarantine perimeter. Also in 2054, archaeologist Lupe Montoya is excavating a historic site nearby. A secret love story is unfolding between a married woman named Eliwys and her husband's servant, Gawyn, in 1348. Also in 1348, Rosemund, Agnes's twelve-year-old sister, is struggling with her obligation to marry a leering older man. All of this character development matters, but often for purposes other than creating echoes and resonance. 

When done well, this kind of layered, complicated character development — some characters paralleling others, some not, and each character having more than one function in the text — goes a long way toward making a fictional world feel real. It also allows the author to touch on themes without beating them to death. And yet, sometimes this kind of light touch is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve. In my experience as a writer who often writes complicated plots, it isn't until later drafts of a book, when my structure is more solidly in place, that I finally have the space to sit back, breathe, and look for places where I can create little connections, or spots where I'm pushing a theme too hard.


Deeper Parallels: Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne

There's one character parallel in this book that I find to be drawn with a heavier pen, and appropriately so.

In 2054, Mr. Gilchrist is the acting head of the History Faculty. Self-important, self-righteous, ignorant about how time travel works, and focused on his own glory, he supervises Kivrin's travel to the Middle Ages with little care for Kivrin's safety. Ultimately, it's largely Mr. Gilchrist's fault that Kivrin ends up in such a dangerous and traumatizing place, and gets stuck there. 

When Gilchrist's culpability becomes clear, he blames and threatens everyone else. For example, when the tech, Badri, collapses onto the net consul, clearly ill, Gilchrist decides, out of nowhere, that Badri must be a drug user. Here's the way he talks (to Mr. Dunworthy): "You can't wait to inform [actual head of the History Faculty] Basingame of what you perceive to be Mediaeval's failure, can you?… In spite of the fact that it was your tech who has jeopardized this drop by using drugs, a fact of which you may be sure I will inform Mr. Basingame on his return…. I'm certain Mr. Basingame will also be interested in hearing that it was your failure to have your tech screened that's resulted in this drop being jeopardized…. It seems distinctly odd that after being so concerned about the precautions Mediaeval was taking that you wouldn't take the obvious precaution of screening your tech for drugs..." (64-65). Agh. Every time he opens his mouth, he says something pompous, repetitive, obnoxious, and untrue.

In 1348, Lady Imeyne is part of the household where Kivrin ends up living. Self-important, self-righteous, sanctimonious, selfish, and ignorant, she ignores the imprecations of wiser people, and, for the sake of her own status, invites visitors to the household — who turn out to be carrying the plague. It is essentially Lady Imeyne's doing that the plague comes to her town. 

When this becomes clear, Lady Imeyne blames everyone else. While others in the household are working themselves to exhaustion trying to care for the sick, she kneels in the corner, ignoring the need for help, and praying. "Your sins have brought this," she tells her daughter-in-law Eliwys, the one who's in love with her own husband's servant (432). Later, she turns on kind, patient Father Roche. "You have brought this sickness," she says. "It is your sins have brought the sickness here." Then she begins to list his sins: "He said the litany for Martinmas on St. Eusebius's Day. His alb is dirty…. He put the candles out by pinching them and broke the wicks" (444).

"She's trying to justify her own guilt," Kivrin thinks. "She can't bear the knowledge that she helped bring the plague here"… But Kivrin can't summon up any pity. "You have no right to blame Roche, she thought, he has done everything he can. And you've knelt in a corner and prayed." (444-445). Similarly, Mr. Dunworthy sees right through Mr. Gilchrist, even at one point considering him Kivrin's murderer (484).

Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne are UNBEARABLE. They're the characters in this book that you most hate, or at least that I do — maybe especially in 2020/21, when we're plagued in real life by dangerous people like them. Later, in possibly the book's most satisfying moment, we learn that Gilchrist has died of the influenza. The book doesn't revel in his death; none of the characters revel. But I sure do. Good riddance, you harmful, self-important, lying hypocrite. This is one of fiction's safe spaces: the intense, guilt-free satisfaction of an asshole being punished.

Similarly, Lady Imeyne dies of the plague. It's a relief. But it's also a bit harder to revel, because with the exception of Kivrin, who's immune, every character in the 1348 timeline dies of the plague. Every single character. It is so desperately sad, not least because it's exactly what happened in 1348. As the book reminds us repeatedly, entire towns were wiped out. There was no one left to toll the bells, or bury the dead. No one is left but Kivrin. Our hearts break for her.

I'm glad that Connie Willis teases out the parallel between Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne more than she does with a lot of the other character parallels. I think it's important; I think that these two characters embody a clear and recognizable type of human who will always exist in eras of human suffering. I'm relieved she kills them; and I'm relieved she doesn't kill everyone we love. In particular, she doesn't kill Mr. Dunworthy and she doesn't kill Kivrin… Which leads me to one last powerful character parallel in this book.

 

Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, God and Jesus

This character parallel is in a different category from the others. It doesn't stretch across the 1348 and 2054 timelines, or not exactly, anyway. It exists on a different plane: It's a parallel between the story of Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, and the story of God sending his son, Jesus, down to earth to live among humans.

The people of 1348 believe the story of God sending his son down to earth. They believe it literally; it's one of their guiding principles. Kivrin, Mr. Dunworthy, and many of the people of 2054 do not believe that story in the literal sense. Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy don't believe in God. 

And yet, there are times when the vocal recordings Kivrin is making for historical purposes begin to sound like pleas to God: "Over fifty percent of the village has it. Please don't let Eliwys get it. Or Roche" (467). "You bastard! I will not let you take her. She's only a child. But that's your specialty, isn't it? Slaughtering the innocents? You've already killed the steward's baby and Agnes's puppy and the boy who went for help when I was in the hut, and that's enough. I won't let you kill her, too, you son of a bitch! I won't let you!" (493). 

And Father Roche, who finally reveals to Kivrin that on the day she arrived, he saw the net open and Kivrin appear, believes with all his heart that Kivrin is a saint, sent by God to help his parishioners in their time of need. "I feared that God would forsake us utterly," he says, as he's dying. "But in His great mercy He did not… But sent His saint unto us." He says, "Yet have you saved me… From fear.… And unbelief" (542-543). He means what he says. Kivrin's ministrations to the sick and to Roche do save him from despair.

And back in the Oxford of 2054, Dunworthy lies sick in his hospital bed, considering Kivrin, whom he's sent to a terrible place. As a rather unbearable character named Mrs. Gaddson stands at his bedside "helpfully" reading him Bible verses, Dunworthy thinks to himself, "God didn't know where His Son was.... 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…. Kivrin would have no idea what had happened. She would think she had the wrong place or the wrong time, that she had lost count of the days somehow during the plague, that something had gone wrong with the drop. She would think they had forsaken her" (475).

I love the questions these moments raise for the reader. Who represents what here? What is God, really? Why, when Badri became ill, did the net send Kivrin to that particular time? Who, or what, are we talking to, when we shout our fury to the universe? Maybe Mr. Dunworthy, sending historians into the past from his lab in Oxford, is a kind of god. And maybe Kivrin is a kind of Jesus, or a kind of saint. Maybe Father Roche has the right idea when he believes what he believes, even if he has some of the particulars wrong.

Near the very end, Kivrin speaks into her recorder addressing Mr. Dunworthy: "It's strange. When I couldn't find the drop and the plague came, you seemed so far away I would not ever be able to find you again. But I know now that you were here all along, and that nothing, not the Black Death nor seven hundred years, nor death nor things to come nor any other creature could ever separate me from your caring and concern. It was with me every minute" (544).

And then, with great difficulty, Mr. Dunworthy comes for Kivrin. He finds her in 1348, heartbroken and surrounded by the dead, and he brings her back home. "I knew you'd come," Kivrin says (578). There's a way in which the justified faith of these characters — Father Roche's faith in God's saint Kivrin, and Kivrin's faith in Mr. Dunworthy's care — show the reader that even in the darkest, most death-ridden times, love doesn't forsake us.

That's a pretty timeless theme. 


***

If you've made it to the end of my post about character parallels in Connie Willis's magnificent Doomsday Book, I hope I've given you a sense of what a powerful tool this can be. It's pretty closely related to some of my other writing lessons here on the blog. Creating webs like Tiffany D. Jackson did in Monday's Not Coming; creating connections like Victor LaValle did in The Changeling. Writing is often about finding the internal connections that'll best support the themes of the story you're trying to tell. I think that especially if your book takes place in multiple timelines, character parallels can go a long way!

Usually I end my craft posts with a photo showing the book filled with post-it flags from my careful rereading, but this time around, I reread by listening to the audiobook. My paper copy is flag-free — but I took eight pages of notes while I was listening! So here's a different photo of my process.

 

Listening like a writer.

 

 

 

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