Set in an alternative future were the globe has already experienced several pandemics, Oxford history academics prepare to send Kivrin Engle back in time to the Middle Ages so she can complete her PHd. Time travel in Willis' world is not an exact science. The universe seems to protect history from change by preventing travellers visiting certain moments in history. This leads to "slippage" when travellers are dumped miles, and hours or even days away from their target. Kivrin is expecting to reach 1320 so she can complete some studies of a small medieval village. Instead she arrives in 1348 able to experience the Black Death first hand.
The presence of the Black Death in the novel is enough to make it worth a read during our own pandemic. But while Willis' tells a brilliant story about Kivrin's trails in 1348 as she strives to save lives and cope with the disease, the real meat is what happens back in her original time. Here academic rivalries and cost cutting have led, in part, to Kivrin being misplaced in time. But the real problem is the arrival of a new flu pandemic which takes out many in the university and seems to have originated from the technician who is the only one who can help locate Kivrin.
It is the unfolding of the pandemic in the modern era, and the crisis for retrieving Kivrin that makes the book so contemporary. The NHS struggles to cope, lacking PPE and vaccines, disease deniers protest outside hospitals blaming immigrants and the European Union, and American visitors complain that their freedoms are being encroached upon by lockdown. This latter leads to the narrator commenting that it was such an approach to lockdown that led to millions of Americans losing their lives in the last pandemic.
Perhaps Doomsday Book will be a little too much for some people going through Covid-19 but I found it bother entertaining and pertinent. It reminded me that we experience disease in a similar way to people in 1348 - through out personal lives and relationships.
There are some bits that felt a little contrived, such as the role of the teenage boy who saves the day and the idea that time-travel is solely under the control of academia (and history departments at that )felt very far fetched.
But that aside, this is a classic work, and had I read it outside of a pandemic I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it as much - though perhaps I'd not have had a wry smile on my face quite so often.