This award-winning two-volume novel begins in Oxford in the year 2060, but most of the action takes place in World War II-era England, where our three main characters travel to conduct historical research. Yes, this is part science fiction and part historical novel, and the heroes are graduate students. If the premise seems far-fetched (or predictable—how many historical novels are there about World War II England?), Willis’s excellent storytelling makes you forget this right away. Her details are immaculate, her characters lovable, and her plot thrilling.
It is a book about what is lost, both during the war and during the century following. Many of the London treasures that our characters see in 1940 they see for the first time, because the treasures did not survive the Blitz, or if they did, they did not survive the destruction of the 21st century. The book is rich with the culture of the early war years. However, Willis does not fall into elegy mode. While she pays tribute to the world of the Blitz and the sacrifices of the real-life Londoners, she doesn’t romanticize them, and this makes for much better reading.
It is also (perhaps mostly) a book about things that time cannot wither—bad food, mischievous children, beloved literature. (Willis pays homage to Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, and Oscar Wilde, among others.) You will feel at home, and so do the graduate students, even though they are decades away from it. The book will make you laugh, and if you’re a softie like me, it will also make you cry. Mostly though, it will take you to another world. It’s well worth the visit.