The world where Blackout and All Clear take place was first created in 1982's novella Fire Watch (thank Zeus it's hanging out online, as my copy of the eponymous collection is languishing somewhere at my folks')--the protagonist of which makes a fleeting cameo in All Clear. In between were Doomsday Book (1992--heartbreaking, and singlehandedly responsible for my thenceforth interest in the Black Death) and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997--one of the funniest novels ever written, and the source of my family's youngest cat's name, Princess Arjumand, Juju for short). It's set it (what is now much nearer than originally) near-future Oxford, wherein the avuncular Mr. Dunworthy presides over the time-travelling history department. A lovely conceit--that this technology would end up being used primarily for historical research! There is, of course, an element of holodeckiness to it, in that we only ever experience the drops that somehow go wrong. This time, Willis returns to the Blitz, where it started for her 28 years ago: three students are sent back to observe various parts of the British WWII experience--Merope (as Eileen O'Reilly) with evacuee children in the country, Michael (as the incongruously American Mike Davis) at the evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk, and Polly (whose name conveniently works for centuries) as a shopgirl during the opening months of the Blitz. When they individually discover they can't get home, they end up banding together in 1940 London, trying to figure out why they're stranded, whether they can affect events that should have already happened, and whether time travel--and hence the future--is doomed after all.
There's my blurb. Here's why I love her: the effortlessness. The (as I once wrote) "best comic incidental characters this side of Jane Austen." The incredible intricacy of her plots--this one in particular weaves several individual narratives and points of view into not even a knot but a braid, if you follow--and parcels out information over 1100 pages total yet manages to surprise even on the last few pages. She makes me laugh out loud, and she makes me cry. She has as fierce and wide-ranging an imagination as China Mieville, but more, if you'll forgive a phrase frowned upon in contemporary criticism, heart--while my friend Noah actually dislikes her because, as he says, "when you find out what's really happening, it's always optimistic*," I feel like this is a point of view sorely lacking in modern fiction of any type. And it's not like she doesn't earn her happy endings: there is suffering and despair and sacrifice. Or, to put it in terms of the 2010 novels, before V-E Day, there are six years of rationing, air raids, and loss. Darkness before dawn.
And the weirdest thing is? Most literary-readin' folks I talk to haven't even heard of her. Go forth and remedy!!
*with the extremely notable exception of Doomsday Book. Boy howdy.