We wanted to review Sarah Waters' The Night Watch as part of our fresh commitment to do a tad more reading on Londonist in 2006, but every time we picked up the book we kept having visions of girls in gasmasks asking us if we were their mummy and had to put it down and sit on our hands for a little while. A much safer bet was asking in a more level head to do the reading and reviewing for us. So here's Jess from The F Word to give us a quick run down at what you're getting for your 1941 11 shillings and tuppence.
Sarah Waters is the self-proclaimed doyenne of the "lesbo Victorian romp", but in her new book, The Night Watch, she swaps Dickensian London for the wartime blackouts, rations and blitz of the 1940s. She has always been a writer that thoroughly grounds her books in historic detail and realism, and she proves herself no less adept at tackling the grimy atmosphere of the capital at the height of war (or when the dust has settled) than she was at evoking a 19th century prison (Affinity) or music hall (Tipping the Velvet).
Waters is unambiguously a Londoner's writer. In telling the stories of a handful of characters whose lives were knitted together as much by wartime happenstance as anything else, she tells the story of the city emerging from devastation into a funeral peace. Things begin not so much in medias res as at the end of a party when everyone's gone home. The Night Watch opens a few years after the war, but freedom has a drabness to it, a disappointment. Just as the rubble of the bombed out buildings have yet to be cleared from the streets, even the sky has a murky quality to it.
The flush romances of the years before have run out and run down, but carry on anyway. Helen and Viv run a dating agency, pairing up stunned servicemen who returned from overseas to find their lovers "transformed out of all recognition"; friends with what they think of as terrible secrets from each other. Viv risks her father's disapproval to surreptitiously visit a married man she no longer feels any passion for; her brother Duncan lives like a perpetual adolescent with an older uncle; Helen is constantly jealous that her lover, a successful crime writer, will run off with another woman. And we meet Kay, who worked on an ambulance during the war. Where once she stoically collected the limbs of bomb victims, she now lives above a quack's office: a shut-in who barely ventures outside.
But then the narrative jumps back a tantalizing few years, to the middle of the war. Without giving too much away, we start to learn how all of these people are connected, only to swing back in time once again. Waters uses a clever device to convey the disappointed hopes of the wartime generation, charting their biographies backwards from the frayed ends of their hopes and dreams in 1947, to a climax of romance and optimism – as well as fear, terror and bloody death in 1941.
The city isn’t just a jumbled-together backdrop, or London as seen through Hollywood's lens, a blur of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. It has a physicality: the characters have physical presence and they walk the physical streets. Like Helen and Julia's terrifying but euphoric journey into the blitzed out City - St Paul's still standing, unaccountably untouched by the bombs.
Waters' novels are always about more than a vivid reconstruction of the era. It's become a near-cliche to call her a consummate storyteller, and this latest novel is surely a fine example of this art. But she continues to bring to light the social and emotional struggles of women learning to be gay in a hostile environment. And, as in previous novels, she does as much to unearth lesbian sub-cultures as reveal the traps a repressive society sets for her characters.
At the height of the war, and all of the horror that implied for women living in the bombed-out capital, there was also a permissive release. Waters' characters struggle in post-war London. Mickey, for example, is stuck in a garage because it’s the only job where she can wear trousers to work...
The Night Watch is that most rare of things: a genuine page-turner and a thoughtful, exacting and well-written novel about society.