Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Lincoln's Dreams: Connie Willis

Lincoln's Dreams is one of Connie Willis' earliest books, and it's arguably not SF at all. Coming to it after reading her later work, I felt like I was putting a foot on a step that wasn't there, constantly waiting for the SF plot to kick in, and feeling not short-changed but simply puzzled when the book stayed grounded in the present.

It's masterful little book, marvellous in its command of details. The final line is brilliantly weighed and judged. You can flip to the back page of the book to see what happens and read that last line, and it won't make any sense. Go back, and read the book, and experience the narrator's confusion and panic and eventual resignation, and the final line will hit you in the heart like a thrown sandbag. In a way, it's a twist ending of sorts, but it's so completely earned; the reader realises what's really been going on at exactly the right moment, and that closer packs an unbelievable wallop. In a way, nothing is resolved, and yet somehow everything is.

It's an awfully simple, almost slight, piece of work. The narrator is a researcher for a successful historical novelist, and runs into a young woman who's having dreams that seem to echo events of the civil war. The narrator gets drawn into her drama, falls in love with her, and tries to solve the problem he thinks she has. Like all of Willis' work, much of the action is driven by distraction, as the narrator's efforts to fix the problem get derailed by misunderstandings and tiny setbacks. Willis has a genius for hiding her plot in the clutter, and in Lincoln's Dreams she adeptly mixes the plot into apparent clutter, leaving everything in plain sight and yet somehow invisible to the reader.

The book climaxes with a heartbreaking confrontation between the narrator and the woman, and then peters out into a brief coda in which I kept waiting for the loose threads from the confrontation to resolve and cohere. Instead, the entire plot almost imperceptibly coalesces until on the very last page you realise that not a word of the book has been a digression. This was only her second novel, published when she was 43 years old. It's an astonishing little jewel of a thing, and a startling reflection on grief and loss. As it truly hits its stride in its second half, the sense of yearning, of struggling to hold off inescapable tragedy is almost unbearable. I read the book over a period of about three weeks, dipping into it a few chapters at a time each weekend that I was back in Dublin. It might already be the best thing I read this year. I expect I'll read some other books which I enjoy more, but as a piece of writing, Lincoln's Dreams is all but perfect.


Rev. Mac said...

I read this book years ago, and it still haunts me. Not as enjoyable as To Say Nothing of the Dog (my favorite Willis), but as a work of art maybe her best. Your description of the book, and of Connie Willis' talent for hiding a plot out in the open but in clutter, are spot on.

Max said...

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a hugely enjoyable book to which I return every couple of years just to cheer myself up, but - perhaps because it was the first I read - Doomsday Book is the Willis I recommend to those poor souls who have't found her work yet. But as a second novel; my word, Lincoln's Dream bats it out of the park.