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"The Night Watch": Despair, desire in London's darkest hour
Seattle Times book critic
"The Night Watch"
Until now, Sarah Waters, the gifted British lesbian writer ("Tipping the Velvet," "Fingersmith"), has specialized in Victorian-era historical novels — books with colorful casts and a picaresque flair to them. Her second novel, the lovely, chilly "Affinity," could be called an excursion into Victorian gothic.
But the point remained: Waters' imagination seemed resolutely lodged in the 19th century.
Not anymore. In her striking and structurally daring new novel "The Night Watch," Waters takes on the London of the 1940s, starting in 1947, then moving back into the heart of the wartime city itself.
It's a risky move, on a couple of counts.
Sarah Waters reads from "The Night Watch," 7 p.m., March 28, Third Place Books (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com); and 7 p.m., March 29, Seattle Public Library, Central Branch, (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
There may be Waters devotees out there reluctant to let go of the Victorian trappings she served up so seductively in her first three novels.
Then there's the question of telling a story backward. How do you generate tension? How do you build to a climax?
As one reads the opening section of "The Night Watch," however, it grows clear that Waters' storytelling instincts are on the mark. The climax of her narrative inevitably has to be buried in the war years. So why not work back to it?
As for Victorian flourishes, Waters evokes the Blitz and blackout and postwar daze of 1940s London so indelibly that it's hard to imagine a reader not succumbing to it.
The novel portrays a loose-knit circle of friends, lovers and chance acquaintances at three points in time: 1947, 1944, 1941. When we first meet them, postwar, there's much that is puzzling or "off" about them.
Waters starts with Kay Langrish, "one of those women ... who'd charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over." Her time now seems mostly to be spent in seeking out female company in dark cinemas.
Another figure, Duncan Pearce, is a quiet, quirky type, leading a life without meaningful work or friends. He lives with his old "Uncle Horace," a devout Christian Scientist who isn't his actual blood relative. When an acquaintance from Duncan's past reappears and is eager to rekindle their connection, Duncan isn't just reluctant but semi-paralyzed at the thought.
Helen Giniver and Viv Pearce run a matchmaking agency together, but don't much confide in each other — Helen because her affair with mystery writer Julia Standing is taking a jealous turn, Viv because her years-long affair with a married man is in trouble. Viv has an additional secret: that her oddball brother, Duncan, spent much of the war in prison for reasons that shame his whole family. And Viv has a connection to Kay as well.
There are moments early on when Waters' revelations of these multiple connections and her use of coincidence to bring them into play strain plausibility. But when the action steps back to 1944, the book comes into its own, promising to answer the questions prompted by almost every figure in the novel: What made her (or him) this way? And what was the war like for them?
Soon the narrative becomes a kind of collective psychological striptease as we see Kay, Duncan, Helen and the others at increasingly exposed and vital moments in their lives, in a city radically altered from night to night by aerial attack.
There are masterful scenes here of ambulance rescue, nighttime adventure, romantic betrayals and realignments. Waters has done her research, including interviews with survivors of the Blitz. Her portrait of the grim, surreal spectacle that German bombs made of the city rivals those of writers — Henry Green, Elizabeth Bowen, Penelope Fitzgerald — who experienced the war. Certainly, her characters' sense of never knowing what they're going to see around a corner or at a fresh bomb site is palpable.
At the same time, this is an appealingly subdued novel. Its focus is on the inner lives of its characters, almost all of whom are, in one way or another, closeted. Most of the action takes place at night. And most of the freedoms the women enjoy — of sexual intrigue, of risk-taking physical work — stem from exceptions created by the war. Waters, in showing us those freedoms, locks onto her characters' very essence.
Elizabeth Bowen once said that the plot of a literary novel is what you have left over after you've gotten rid of everything that doesn't belong. The unusual shape and chronology of "The Night Watch" illustrate this perfectly. The book takes the form it does because that's the way its powerful, poignant content demanded to go.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company