The thing I enjoyed most about this book was that St. Mary’s, both the institution and the people who give their lives to it, are quintessentially English in the way that they muddle through from one crisis to the next. They break the rules when the rules are silly or even when they’re just inconvenient. They are chaotic to the point of recklessness, irreverent and prone to inappropriate humour, they’re driven by a passion to do the right thing, they stumble over the simple day-to-day aspects of life, they are emotionally inarticulate, deeply loyal, keep their heads in a crisis, move TOWARDS the gunfire and do what needs to be done to make a bad situation better and, no matter how battered or beaten they are, if someone asks how they’re doing the answers is always “I’m perfectly fine. Apart from a few cuts, scratches, a broken arm and a mild concussion. Nothing to worry about.”
Of course, the English aren’t REALLY like this, but they’d like to be. They’re probably the ONLY ONES who’d like to be. Which is where the charm and the emotional impact of this book lies. It gets inside this mindset and helps you fall in love with it. If you’re NOT going to fall in love with it, you won’t make it to the end of the book. If you do fall in love with it, then, like me, you’ll be buying the second book in the series pronto.
I am, of course, aware that this is a most improper review. I should have started by saying how this is about plucky time travelling historians from a near-future England, who, working in secret, find out what really happened in key historical events by the simple expedient of turning up, taking notes and trying not to get killed. I should have described the struggle between the good guys from St. Mary’s and the bad guys who started in St. Mary’s but didn’t stay because they were the wrong sort: serious, power-hungry, organized and with no sense of humour at all. I should have commented on how well Jodi Taylor writes the historical scenes set behind the lines in the Battle of the Somme and gives a remarkably effective pen sketch of what it was like to be an unarmed civilian on the receiving end of a cavalry charged by the 15th Hussars in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
Instead, I rushed on to the bits I found most important. Perhaps the spirit of St. Mary’s is infectious. I hope so.
This is the book I was hoping for when I bought Connie Willis’ “Blackout” and “All Clear” novels (which I didn’t manage to finish – so disappointing after her wonderful “Doomsday Book”).
Part of what makes the madcap Englishness of St Mary’s so appealing is that it is seen through the eyes of Madeleine Maxwell, “Max”, a brilliant and brave woman who also has “damaged misfit” written all the way through her like “Brighton” in a bar of rock. Max is insightful and brave and dedicated and also distracted, socially inept, emotionally withdrawn, constantly in trouble with authority and ceaselessly, ravenously curious.
She is a well drawn character who makes the whole novel credible. Her relationships, her actions in the face of disaster, her breakdowns and her triumphs humanize what could otherwise have felt like a description of a slightly smug boy’s club.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to meet the English as they ought to be.
By the way, the attitude to History (which of course has a capital H) is also very British. The title of the book is actually the definition offered by the influential British historian, Arnold Toynbee: “It’s just one damned thing after another.”