"We never seem to love the people we ought to; I can't think why." These words, spoken by one of the central characters near the end of this sensitive book, might well serve as the epigraph for the whole. As a love story, it is passionate and true, but untidy because it is true; the truth and awkwardness go hand in hand, both beautifully reconciled by Sarah Waters' unusual narrative method. The novel traces the changing emotional relationships among a group of women (plus a few men) whose lives intersect in London during the two main periods of the Blitz, in 1941 and 1944. So completely do we get to know these characters that it is tempting to talk about them as though already conversant with their backgrounds. But one of the joys of Sarah Waters' storytelling is the manner in which she reveals information piece by piece, starting after the War and working backwards. It would be a shame to spoil this pleasure for a new reader.
But one can at least quote the opening sentence: "So this," said Kay to herself, "is the sort of person you've become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord's door." The year is 1947, and Kay appears as a casualty of war, living alone in a declining area of South London, in a poky flat in the house of a faith healer. Yet we shall soon glimpse a different Kay: a woman of elegance and style, performing almost daily acts of heroism in her wartime work, and responsible for many of the epiphanies of grace which illuminate this story of a dark period.
The book has three sections: the first, set in 1947, is 175 pages in the paperback edition; the second, set in 1944, is the longest at 290 pages; the third, set in 1941, is only 50 pages. Reading it is rather like going to the movies in those days, picking up in the middle of the feature, then watching the program round again to discover how it all began. It has the advantage of heading towards two different kinds of ending simultaneously: there is the ending of each chronological section, and there is the ending of the book as a whole. The endings in the 1947 section are mostly hopeful but never pat, all utterly believable, and untidy as true things generally are. This is mostly the case with the 1944 section as well. Two of the three short episodes in the concluding 1941 section, however, are bright as a button; descriptions of how the characters first met, they are crisp and compact because they shine with possibility unshaded by subsequent events. The third 1941 episode describes an event that has been glimpsed as a shadow over in the life of the main male character, Duncan, now brought into the light for the first time. If there had been any doubt as to the wisdom of Waters' narrative method, the bracing cocktail of these last fifty pages triumphantly dispels it.
But no matter how she chooses to tell it, I would read any Sarah Waters novel for her portrayal of women. There is a reality to these women that is rare even among female writers. We share the author's understanding of their social lives, their work, their friendships deep or casual, their emotional needs, even their bodies. It is no surprise that most of the relationships in this love story are lesbian ones. But I found none of the difficulty I encountered with the homosexuality in Alan Hollinghurst's THE LINE OF BEAUTY (another recent Man Booker finalist), because the relationships that Waters describes are all emotional ones first, and her rare descriptions of physical sex are the natural outcome of an intimacy of the feelings. Even reading as a man, I don't find myself watching the characters from outside (still less with any prurient fascination), but experiencing with them as I recall the emotional roller-coaster of my own youth.
I called this a love story, and it is. But looking back at it, I feel it is very much more a friendship story, set against a remarkably convincing portrayal of a particular time and place. Perhaps wartime pressures both highlight simple acts of kindness and make them more necessary. There are many such things in this book, extending to the minor characters as well as the major ones, and they give a richness to the intertwined lives that are portrayed in it. When these connections between one human being and another lead to love, it is almost irrelevant whether that love is emotional or physical, hetero- or homosexual. For this, as its unusual form makes clear, is a novel about beginnings, emotional journeys, and stops along the way. It is not to be confined by mere endings.
on April 17, 2006
An interestingly structured account of several characters in 1940's London.
Waters starts with the present and works backward, illuminating the present situation, which appears innocuous and even shallow at first, by showing what happened in the past. The present gains depth, and even a touch of horror, as we see the jealous lover who betrayed someone to be with the person whose absences she now violently suspects, and the continued relationship between a woman and the man who abandoned her as she fought for her life.
It's an interesting plot structure, and the fact that it naturally lessens tension is somewhat made up for by the ugly depths that we learn lie behind our initial picture. Dramatic individual scenes keep the immediate interest level fairly high.
Having loved all three of Waters' previous novels, though, I was disappointed by this. It was impossible to sympathize with most of the characters, not because they were weak or venal (they were) but because they were boring. Their concerns seemed mundane and their personalities unremarkable. In addition, strangely precious dialogue had a jarring effect and made it hard to take the narrative seriously at times.
on May 19, 2007
After reading Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith I knew that I had to go hunt up her other works. This time instead of the Victorian world, the setting is that of World War II, when the bombs of the Blitz are shattering London. Waters takes the lives of a handful of people, then explores the shifting relationships between them all.
The novel opens in the year 1947. London is still mostly a ruin two years after the bombs have stopped falling. The opening scene is of a woman standing at her window, smoking; she is watching as two men come walking up to the house where she lives. One is young, the other much older and clearly not doing well. Downstairs from Kay is a Christian Scientist healer, who views that physical ailments are nothing more than the burdens that the mind carries, and uses a soothing monolog of prayer and exhoration to give relief to his patients. Kay, in the meantime, wanders the streets of London at night, nattily dressed in men?s clothing, looking -- but looking for what?
Viv and Helen run a matchmaking agency, with some success, after the war. It's not exactly satisfying work, but it does help. Helen is involved with Julia, a writer who is on the verge of making it big, and Viv is entangled with Reggie, a married man, another relationship that is evidently going nowhere.
And finally there is the relationship between Viv and her brother Duncan -- who is none other than the young man that Kay spotted from her window. We discover that Duncan has a very troubled past, and a time in prison during the war, troubles that have left him deeply disturbed and his family in shreds.
The next segment of the novel is set three years earlier, during the last devastating bombing of London. Kay is an ambulance driver who works at night, when the Germans drop their incendiaries and bombs, seeking to break the British. Kay has her circle of friends, fellow drivers and medics, and gets a surge of vitality from her work. And she has the opportunity to be with her lover, Helen, cherishing and adoring her. Yes, the same Helen who is working with Viv in the earlier part of the novel.
Viv, for her part, is working in a government ministry, trying to help those people who have been bombed out of their own homes. We see that she was still involved with Reggie, even though she knows that he has a wife and children tucked away in the country. But she holds on, hoping that somehow things will become permanent with her lover.
Duncan is in prison, a ghastly spot in London called Wormwood Scrubs. As to why he is in there, we haven't found out yet, but it's a horrible place to be. When the bombs fall near the prison turns into a mixture of fear and elation, with the inmates either screaming or cheering on the bombs. The few visits that Duncan gets from his family are grim ordeals, with only Vivien giving him any sort of comfort, and even then, it's not much.
Helen, in turn, is finding that she has more than just a passing interest in Julia, a former lover of Kay's, and it's threatening to overturn her own relationship with the vibrant, risk taking Kay.
The final segment is set in 1941, and the reader, if they've made it this far, will discover how everyone in the previous two parts of the novel acquired all of their baggage. I'm not going to reveal much more of the story here, but it does give several very surprising twists.
Instead of creating a novel with a past, present and future, or indeed any sort of plot beyond survival, Waters has given us a story of relationships. We're treated to vignettes, and characters ruminating over their past choices, and the fears of what is to come. While I certainly did find them interesting, I had a hard time feeling in touch with the various players in this story. They are just, well, surviving, a few are trying to pick up the pieces of their past, but there isn't any sort of passion here -- everyone is going through the motions, but each one is adrift in the ruins, as it were.
If you are looking for the same sort of pacing and twists that Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith had, they are not here. Indeed, the hardest thing that I had in this story was the complete lack of plot. With placing the first part in 1947, we already know that most of the people are going to be surviving World War II, and the bombing of London, so there's one big twist gone, we already know that various lovers have broken up and hooked up with someone else, and so forth. So the only thing really left is the internal, emotional world of the characters, and the vivid depiction of a society coming apart.
It's this description of a bombed, terrified London that makes the book worth reading. While it's not a particularly good novel, it's these striking word-paintings that make the story worth wading through. Sadly though, it doesn't save the book from being more than a three star read, and rather disappointing. While the life-styles of the characters and their relationships are controversial -- most of the women are caught up in lesbian affairs, Viv and Reggie are adulterers, and Duncan exists in a lonely, self-made hell -- even here, there's nothing much to really relate to.
It's a pity, as Sarah Waters is a damn fine writer, and can do much better than this. So, to sum up, it's an average read, but hard to follow in this story written in reverse. If you are particularly interested in daily life in London during the war, or in the topic of forbidden relationships, I suppose this would do. But I can't give it an honest recommend to read this one either. It all depends on your own taste in reading.
on March 29, 2006
i'll keep this short: the story is interesting, the characters are well crafted, the descriptions have depth, but there is no heart to this story. the first thing that struck me is her language - in previous novels she stunned me with her words. this is much more bland. maybe its because of the time period and events that she is portraying, but i miss reading sentences that rocked me like a blow. if you are a fan, it is a must read. if you are new to her, try her first three so you can see her at her best.
Wow! I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I picked up this lengthy novel, but my time was well spent. I read the unabridged version of the book on CD in my car during my long commute. It took a long time, but I found myself actually looking forward to traffic jams so I could sit in the car and listen longer. I even found myself sitting in my garage once I got home because I couldn't turn it off.
Waters introduces a wonderful cast of characters that I won't go into too much here because other reviewers have already done so, but a few notes are warranted.
My favorite character is Viv. She struggles with much as a young woman in love with a married soldier during the war. Her brother, Duncan, is also a constant source of worry for this enigmatic woman. She has my utmost respect in most areas, but has my pity in others.
Duncan started off as my favorite character, but I lost interest in his antics about midway through the book. His relationships with Mr. Mundy and Frasier are deep and disturbed.
Helen is a pathetic character you can't help but like. She's torn between Kay and Julia. She cheats on one and is cheated on by the other.
Kay is a lover, plain and simple. When she loves you, it's undeniable. At the same time it's smothering.
Julia is the aristocratic writer who is the epitome of "free" artist. She's my least favorite character because she seems extremely shallow and uncaring.
I appreciate the method Waters uses with timing in the book. She starts at the end and ends at the beginning. I was a little distracted at first because of this, but after I got recalibrated with each time shift I realized it was a great approach.
I read a lot. This was one of the best, highest quality books I've read in a long time. It reminded me of many of the literature classics I read in high school in college (yes, that was a long time ago, but I still remember!).
Don't let the sheer size of this one scare you. It's well worth the time required to get from front cover to back cover. Extremely highly recommended.
on December 29, 2006
This is a novel that runs backwards. We meet the book's 5 main characters in 1947, stay with them for close to 200 pages and then jump back in time to 1944 for the largest chunk of the book, and then finish with events of 1941. This sort of "permanent flashback" actually works quite well.
The 1947 "present" introduces Kay, Viv, Helen, Julia and Duncan, tells about their lives and relationships, and piques our interest in what happened in the past to place them in their current situations. All of the main characters are facing turning points in their relationships when all of a sudden we come to the end of the first section, and are abruptly taken back to 1944. My first reaction to this time shift was dismay. As we are now shifted permanently back in time we will never discover how our small group will resolve their life situations. We are now in a period of World War II where life is a struggle, where people are called on to face suffering, death and deprivation. Most face life with courage. Relationships develop and change. Then, whoosh, we are in 1941, and we finally learn the factors that set our group on its journey to 1947.
I said earlier that I viewed the shift from 1947 back to 1944 with some dismay, as we will never know how our group will resolve their current difficulties. Then I realized that our 1947 characters' lives had become ordinary. In 1947 their lives were falling into the drab routine of ordinary existence. How things turn out is immaterial. What is important is how living in a period of war charged their lives with its unusual and demanding circumstances. On reflection the backward structure of the novel is a stroke of genius.
I really enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it. I should point out that there are lesbian relationships in the novel. I thought they were well done, and very interesting, but if such matters are viewed by a potential reader as an abomination, then my suggestion to that reader is to look elsewhere.
on March 27, 2006
Three long years after Fingersmith might as well have been a lifetime for those of us who salivate at the sight of quality queer fiction by contemporary writer, Sarah Waters. During this time, we've had to console ourselves with adaptations of Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet (thank you BBC!), and the debut of the author's website (always a sure sign that a critical mass of fans have been achieved) but never far from our minds was the big W; When is the next one coming? A few scraps of information, gleened from interview transcripts and Googling, collected during a rainy day in December almost made me dance a jig. The title is the Nightwatch and it's due out in the spring. So I ordered the book in advance, received it yesterday, tore open the package, and devoured the entire text in 9 hours, pausing only to eat something remotely edible. And? Well, the Night Watch was good enough that I was captivated, but the story felt sluggish, and left me wondering when the pace was going to pick up. And unlike her previous works where the characters develop with such exquisite detail, flesh, and spirit, that they practically lept off the page and whispered Victorian sweet nothings in my ear, Kay, Helen, Julia, Viv and company remained beautifully rendered still-lifes. They were swept up by a tornado (WWII), yet ultimately it landed them near where they began. Though each bore scars to show for it, none achieved substantial personal triumphs or growth. A good read? Absolutely. Waters is immensely talented with a fantastic eye for historical detail. So good in fact that we expected more than this work ultimately delivers.
on March 27, 2006
After I read Sarah Waters for the first time in Fingersmith, I was totally amazed. She had managed to take a set of unusual topics and make a credible novel of it. Frankly, I thought that it was one of the best novels of that year. Since then, I became a huge Sarah Waters fan, hurriedly gobbling her earlier novels and was looking forward to this novel. Cast in more modern times, it has the lives of four people during after WW2. In this novel, she moves from first person to third person. The initial part was intriguing to me after I realized that novel goes back in time instead of forward, which takes time getting used to. Thus we leave her characters as we meet them; and it is we, not they, who feel older, wiser and sadder at the novel's end.
A lot of the first part appears aimless. This is full of picnics and ordinary life described very well. There are tiny hints of secrets that each character has that test our patience. The novel turns into the slow revealing of secrets. Her portrayal of London under attack is superb. The book demands a lot of power to not be dissuaded. I could not read it in one stretch unlike her earlier book. It took me multiple readings to get the full concept behind the book. I still feel that it is a lovely book, but it is nowhere near Fingersmith in style and story telling. I realize that it is unfair to expect an author to be so consistent, but I cannot help it as I am selfish.
on May 23, 2006
I am a tremendous fan of Sarah Waters' work, but this one didn't quite hit the mark. I suppose what you're looking for in a novel may have some part in your overall feelings toward it- looking for the sassy lesbian story? Not so much. Looking for lesbian life to be depicted in an interesting setting? Sure. Looking for a novel about wartime life that is achingly real? Absolutely. But if you're looking for all of those things or need more of one element than another, you might feel disappointed. Perhaps the emptiness I felt at the end of the novel was intended by the author- to match Kay's emptiness or that of the other characters after the war. But I don't think so. I think it reflects an element missing from the novel. I agree with other reviewers who indicated that some of the language just didn't work. A nice read but not the Sarah Waters effort I was anticipating.
on June 11, 2006
I've read all of Waters' books and personally found this one to be second only to Tipping the Velvet. Of course, out of the four, I tend to put Fingersmith last, so if you loved that one, perhaps you won't enjoy the new one as much as I did. It seems to me that Waters' work here is getting more sophisticated, actually--with Tipping the Velvet, she was testing the waters and writing a racy lesbian masher novel. With Affinity, the mood was more somber and more hopeless in terms of the whole lesbian love plot. Fingersmith--great plot twists and turns, but little on the character side.
In The Night Watch, it seems to me that she's brought all of the good elements of her earlier work--the historical flair, the character development, the vivid and poignant depiction of lesbian life in a time where (forgive the cliche) it is the "love that dare not speak its name", and the humor--together. While others found this a boring read, I found it anything but; the backwards time frame kept the story moving, as I had to find out how Helen, Kay, and Viv got to where they were in the start of the book.
If I were to have any wishes for what she might have done differently, it would probably be that I wish I knew more of Julia and Kay, more of Duncan and Alec, Duncan and Mr. Mundy, and more of Viv and Kay. But then, I wouldn't be sitting here filling in those gaps myself, which is a glorious thing for a reader (who just finished the book a few moments ago) to do. Now, I just hope it won't be another year or so before we get another Waters novel.
Someone who reviewed the book earlier pointed out that Waters makes lesbian life seem "normal" and depicts it the way she "would" a heterosexual relationship. Yes, she does depict the lesbian relationships here as being as valid and normal as the heterosexual ones--I think that's kind of the point. I think that it's a bit odd that the other reviewer wanted to make this almost a backhanded compliment--we should be applauding fiction that demonstrates the ways in which homosexual relationships are not all tawdry and sordid. Most of us are concerned with mortgages, laundry, and the everyday things. I suppose one reason I don't find this book boring is because I realize that lesbian life is life like it is in the straight world--what a relief to find a book that depicts relationships between women in a realistic light. While I loved Tipping the Velvet, I think most folks will find this latest novel far more modern and realistic than her earlier works.