Some books I review because I just generally like to keep track of what I read, some I review because I love or hate them, and others I must review because they disrupt my thinking and compel me to work through the worldview they present. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a book that fits in the last category—certainly not what I expected when I picked it up on a whim.
It’s been on my shelf for years, after I enjoyed Willis’s more lighthearted To Say Nothing of the Dog. Like that title, it’s set in a future time where time travel has been discovered and is used academically for purposes of historical research. Side note: it’s brilliant how Willis makes this future world so believable by mentioning its innovations just in passing, all accepted and slanged and business as usual for the characters. It makes for an immersive experience and is so well done.
Anyways, this story is about a visit to the Middle Ages, which had been off limits (rated “a ten”) until the historical department Head at Oxford takes a fishing trip over the hols and the Acting Head lowers the rating and rushes a historian into this dangerous age. Not that Kivrin didn’t want to go. Idealistic and young, she had entered the college with no other aim. Dunworthy, her favorite professor, did everything he could to stop the drop (as it’s called) but she was determined and so was everyone else. But as soon as she’s through the net, there’s trouble. The technician, Badri, falls deathly ill and with the Christmas holiday, no one else is there to manage things. Kivrin has troubles of her own as soon as she arrives, coming down with the same dangerous influenza as Badri (in the Middle Ages, where standard medical practice was pretty much bloodletting and not much else).
Somehow Kivrin survives and finds herself in the house of a minor noble family. They fled to this tiny village for unspecified reasons that Kivrin thinks are political. Her mission is to observe, to fit in as much as possible, and to be at the rendezvous location the day Badri is supposed to reopen the net and pull her out. But with her sickness she doesn’t remember where it was, and there are other complications.
Back in the contemporary world, Badri’s influenza has spread to many others, causing an epidemic and quarantine of the college. People are trapped there and it’s not long before several begin to die, and the virus source can’t be traced. Dunworthy is frantic to pull Kivrin out of the net but there is no one to do it. And that’s before he falls ill himself.
All through the novel the characters keep talking about the horrifying plague, the Black Death, that hit England on Christmas 1348 (and reassuring themselves that Kivrin was sent to 1320 with no chance of the slippage that would land her even close to the fateful year of 1348). Spoilers ahead… she did get sent to 1348 by mistake and the story takes a terrifying turn when the bubonic plague reaches their village.
This is where it gets awful. Kivrin herself has been immunized against it, just as an extra precaution, but of course no one else is and these characters you’ve come to care about, just as Kivrin does, fall one by one into its clutches. The descriptions of its effects are very detailed and very dreadful.
In the midst of all this is the question of God. Where is He when the unthinkable is happening? Why does He allow such extreme suffering? Kivrin battles to save her friends’ lives and screams defiance at the God who could watch all this happen and do nothing. And you feel her pain and rage when Agnes dies. When Rosemund passes, after seemingly coming through it. When Eliwys passes, when the church clerk who brought the disease finally dies in a rictus of agony. When Father Roche, that humble, honorable priest, finally succumbs after selflessly tending the many ill. The entire village is swept away and the steward, who dug everyone’s graves including that of his wife and six children, digs one for himself and lies down in it to die.
This is the sort of book you stay up late to finish and then dream about, it’s so intense. It’s not just the action and events that are intense, but the moral and philosophical questions raised by such unthinkable and widespread suffering. I read a description of a mother and baby, both dead, skin blackened by the disease, and think of the horror if I had lived then and watched my children die like this. Or died this way myself, leaving them to die alone. Would I be able to hang on to my faith that “all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose”? Would I still believe God is good when He did not intervene to save my family from lingering and truly appalling deaths? Even simple, steadfast Roche is shaken by the suffering of the little girl Agnes.
The people of the time believed that Satan had defeated God somehow and was ruling the world, that God was powerless to rescue them. The plague wiped out 50 million people—half of Europe. It’s the age-old question; if God is good and sovereign, why do bad things happen? How can He be both?
I don’t have a perfect answer to this. There have been many other horrors in our human history that God did not stop. I think of the Holocaust (and, incidentally, the Christians like Corrie Ten Boom who held on to their faith in God even in the death camps). I think of all the horrible things I’ve never even heard about, the million trillion miseries that fill our planet. I think it’s the immensity and severity of the plague years that fix the eye so irresistibly on the question of God’s goodness in suffering. In death. Time has softened our perception of plague and it takes a good brave novelist to make us see it in all its horror and ask the questions those people asked.
And yet the Bible is not silent on pestilence. It wasn’t confined to the Middle Ages; Scripture speaks of it and I’m sure it’s been horrifying no matter when or where it has happened. According to Romans 8, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that includes disease, sickness, and death. I just don’t know how that can be experientially true in the moment of seeming abandonment. I don’t know how I would respond. I guess I don’t have to face it before the moment of testing comes (if it ever does on that scale). I also think, we don’t have the widespread plague of the Black Death but we all die, some of us in great pain despite everything modern medicine can do for us. It’s easier to smooth over when it’s just one person at a time dying rather than entire villages, but death comes for us all. God doesn’t intervene to stop that experience either and it happens every day.
And yet, He did intervene. He sent His Son. He did not remove the physical experience of our death but He did remove its permanence. Dunworthy also fights through these questions and concludes that God must not have known what they would do to His Son, and when it started happening He was powerless to stop it. But Scripture tells a different story. That’s the one I have to believe. Somehow God is both good and sovereign, even when it seems hell is unleashed on earth.
Yes, I’m still working through this. It is good to be disrupted in my comfortable beliefs and explore the God who is not predictable, not safe—and not afraid of my questions. ( )