Connie Willis’ 2010 Blackout/All Clear was a massive effort. Clearing a whopping 1,168 pages, her love for WWII history, particularly Hitler’s attacks of London in 1940, came full on—emphasis on ‘full’—in historical content. But as fans of the author are aware, this was not her first foray into the so called ‘Blitz’ of London. A handful of short fiction had been written previously, hinting at what was to come. Her 2000 novella, The Winds of Marble Arch, is one such story.
Starring (another) historical scholar, The Winds of Marble Arch is set in London at the beginning of Tony Blair’s prime ministry. Tom, along with his wife Cathy, are in England’s capital to attend a conference. The visit is social as well, so while Cath is out shopping with a friend catching up on old times, Tom is tasked with acquiring theater tickets for their group. In love with London’s tube, he sets out to the theater district to see what’s available. But a strange occurrence at one of the stops—an explosion that only he can sense—derails the search for tickets and sets him on new tracks, seeking out the cause of the perceived explosion. An exploration of London via the tube resulting, what he finds is less Tom and more Connie Willis—for better or worse.
Bursting with knowledge needing an outlet, The Winds of Marble Arch is full of knowledge/trivia on London, the Underground, and the stations bombed in WWII. Willis relishing in the details of tube stops and the damage they suffered in the Blitz, she holds nothing back relating the details of what type of bombs fell, on which stations, how many casualties, and the types of problems which resulted—electrical, water, and otherwise. For those interested in such history, the novella will be a treat. For those interested in story, however…
The plot linking the historical elements of The Winds of Marble Arch is weak. Willis foregrounding a desire to pass along what she knows of the period, plot gets shoved to the background, which means so too does the reader if the era’s trivia is not of interest. Were theme to run strongly in parallel, this would not be such a bother. Unfortunately, they appear to be perpendicular—and even when the two do intersect, it is on different planes. It’s difficult to buy the WWII bombing of London as symbolizing the start of social and moral decay in London/Western society. England’s history long and relatively well documented, there are numerous other examples which could provide such an impetus (Henry VIII, Thatcher, WWI, the Hundred Years War, etc.). In other words, the story seems to force info dumps about the Blitz into the same cramped room as the ethically moribund state of London to the effect the reader must already have bought into such an idea. That Willis also attempts to jam the simplest of romance stories into this already impossible space doesn’t help matters.
Regarding style, Willis is neither flamboyant, incompetent, or beautifully prosaic. The story is told in direct, first-person that describes matters well, but, for those who prefer a more refined text, floats rather than sings, and contains a preponderance of speech tags. The first eight pages of the novella are a conversation between two people where every line bears: “he said”, “he asked”, “she said” to no end. That being said (ha!), the moments wherein Tom is relating the paranormal feeling of wind, trips on the Tube, and the various strange odors at tube stations, are well done. If anything, Willis is at least consistent stylistically.
In the end, The Winds of Marble Arch is for a narrow audience. Those who enjoy the author’s imparting of historical knowledge/trivia via a thinly laid story will get the most from the novella. Content barely linked to plot, the denouement is rather trite (it contains the line “Love conquers all.”). But for those interested in the history and layout of London’s underground, particularly with regards to the Nazi’s bombing of London in WWII, the story is for you. A precursor to Blackout/All Clear, precisely that audience, and perhaps those who like maudlin love stories placed against “historical” backgrounds, will enjoy the novella.