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Monday, September 04, 2006

Watching The Night Watch

A review of The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters (Virago), part of Veena's Booker Mela

Sarah Waters must rue the day she half-mockingly referred to her work as “Victorian lesbian romps." Every review of her books so far – including this one – has to mention it at least once. The fact remains, though, that with Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, she skillfully turned the Victorian genre on its head through structural devices and feminist perspectives. (There is a case to be made for John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman being the forerunner of all such work, including Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.)

With The Night Watch, Waters turns her attention away from the reign of Victoria to focus on civilian life during the Second World War. This is the interlinked story of the secret lives of three women and a man in London, in the shadow of the Blitz. There’s Kay, an ambulance driver whom people call “mannish”; the disturbed Helen, her sometime lover; Vivian, who’s involved with a married soldier; and Duncan, her brother, who lives with the shifty Uncle Horace.

Tarantino has said of his films – especially Pulp Fiction – that he prefers the answers-first-questions-later structure, and so it is in this book, with Waters narrating the stories of her characters back to front -- the novel begins in 1947, moves to 1944 and finally ends with a section set in 1941. Though backward narration has been tried before with mixed results – in Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow for example – Water’s felicity of expression makes this approach seem apt here. As one of the characters in the book, who watches the second half of films first, says (a trifle unnecessarily): “I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures”.

Another defining strength of the novel is that Waters has clearly immersed herself in research without letting it overwhelm her: the streets, homes, clothes and prosaic details of everyday life of the Forties are impeccably detailed and woven into the whole. Such verisimilitude is comforting: we are in the hands of a craftsman who knows much and cares about her work.

However, one wouldn’t go so far as to call The Night Watch an unqualified success. For a start, because we’re introduced to characters coping with their current lot and are driven to find out the ultimate reasons thereof, the middle section does tend to sag. And next, the need to interconnect characters makes coincidence and chance appear a bit too often and too obviously. Thankfully, these blemishes aren’t disfiguring; Waters does manage to ably pull off this tale of characters in the grip of history, evolving strategies to deal with society’s pressures and expectations and moving inexorably into the twilight.


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