Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The Night Watch

by Sarah Waters

If I tell you how The Night Watch ends it will not spoil your enjoyment of this wartime tale, for that is where Sarah Waters starts, six years after our heroines meet. In three sections, 1947, 1944 and 1941, Waters charts the stories of Kay, Helen and Julia, Viv and her brother Duncan, with the flair for period detail she has already demonstrated in Affinity, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. By exchanging silk petticoats for satin pyjamas, Waters has lost none of the claustrophobic sexuality that characterised her earlier novels; London in the Blitz providing as many opportunities as Victorian England for intrigues and repression.
The post-war gloom infuses the first section of the novel with the torpor of its disappointed cast and we meet gallant Kay struggling to cope with both the loss of her love and her role in society. ‘Wartime is a time of kindness…The courage of people, the impossible goodness.’ Fraser, a rare survivor, tells us. And in The Night Watch we see how this might be so for one group of women. It is the men who are the victims in The Night Watch; killing themselves, whether they go to war or stay behind, by their own hand or society’s.
Gradually, Waters uncovers the tangled intimacies of these lives, rather as an archaeologist might sift through the rubble of a precious find. And if she wears her research a little too heavily and if the structure might seem somewhat arbitrary (the novel reads as well backwards as it does forwards), we shouldn’t mind the detour at the hands of such an accomplished wordsmith. The pleasure is in the heady atmosphere created by Waters’ carmine tipped prose as we discover the seeds of her characters’ destruction. But I won’t reveal the beginning, that would be telling.

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