We have to be gallant, people like us. No one else is bloody well going to be gallant on our behalf.
Several months ago, I tried to convey my enthusiasm for Sarah Waters and her groundbreaking novels in my post about Affinity. Not long after I read Affinity, I naturally plunged headlong into The Night Watch. Since it is now many months since I read The Night Watch in October of last year, now that I’m finally sitting down to write about it, I’m quite surprised at how much of the novel has been retained in my memory. Rather than give credit to my rather good memory for this robust recollection, I will suggest—and this is what I believe—that it is more due to Waters’s storytelling prowess that I can remember so much of the story. As I tried to think about writing this post, many scenes and details and impressions from the novel came back to me without effort.
As I’ve already said in that other post, The Night Watch is different from Waters’s previous three novels in that this one is set in World War II London and its aftermath, rather than in the Victorian era. It was a time of air raids, bomb shelters, black-outs, rations, black-market trade in meat, coffee, soap, liquor, cigarettes, stockings, etc. The story follows a handful of characters, immersed within the confines of wartime but whose desires and ambitions are otherwise universal, as they make their lives—which are intertwined intimately or casually—in post-Blitz London. But they are followed in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1941. The novel, in effect, begins at the end, and by going back in time from there, the question which is silently asked is one that many of us are familiar with: In astonishment, we ask, “How did I get here? This is not what I had imagined or set out to become.” And, like the novel’s plot devise, we try to linearly recall, in quiet or otherwise, events of the past and see their contrast with the present.
Although the plot follows several characters, the novel belongs to Kay Langrish, a thirtysomething ambulance driver who, with her good friend Iris “Mickey” Carmichael, bravely drives through the bombed-out streets of London to either aid bomb victims or pick up bodies and body parts. Kay Langrish is the tale’s gallant hero, the one who makes selfless sacrifices, the one who rescues the damsel in distress with a courageously light and jocular heart, who acts tough but weeps at watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. As with other fairy tales’ likeable heroes, I wished for her a happy ending.
The picture that Waters paints of post-Blitz London is painstakingly detailed. Several scenes are described so effectively that they make their point unambiguously. It is a case of stories so well told that they make a movie in one’s mind, and these details make the novel. I also could not help but get the impression that there were several political statements made in this novel, encompassing different issues which, even today, are relevant. In short, I think that what I have tried to describe in this post is really good literary fiction.
Sarah Waters and her book, The Night Watch, were featured on National Public Radio in June 2006. Her latest novel, The Little Stranger, is scheduled to be released at the end of this month (Penguin/Riverhead). Read an extract from the novel on the Sarah Waters site.
I remembered that comment of Arthur’s, that women’s books could only ever be journals of the heart. I think I thought that, in making my trips to Millbank, in writing of them here, I would somehow disprove or spite him. I thought that I could make my life into a book that had no life or love in it—a book that was only a catalogue, a kind of list. Now I can see that my heart has crept across these pages, after all. I can see the crooked passage of it, it grows firmer as the paper turns. It grows so firm at last, it spells a name—
Sarah Waters is the prize-winning author of four novels of historical fiction with gay themes, three of them set in the Victorian era and one set during the second world war. Three of her novels—Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and Affinity—have been adapted into film, the former two by the BBC. Her fourth novel, The Night Watch is in the process of being adapted into film as well. That’s four for four for Miss Waters. I think that she deserves a lot of credit for the promotion of gay-themed literature into the mainstream, and this she accomplished because she is an outstanding writer. The mainstream acceptance of her novels has less to do with the fact that their main characters are gay than the fact that these characters embody universal human conditions.
I could not speak of Affinity without enthusiasm. I thought it was brilliant. Reminiscent of the confounding plot twists in Fingersmith, the plot of Affinity deceives and surprises well. One peculiar aspect of this novel is how Miss Waters writes out dialogues—at many points, she altogether gets rid of quotation marks and new paragraphs to mark dialogue, without causing any confusion to the reader.
Set in late nineteenth century London, the story is that of Margaret Prior and Selina Dawes, two women who apparently have nothing in common except, perhaps, for their needs. Miss Prior is a lady from an affluent family who, as her charity work and to fill her time, makes regular visits to the women prisoners of Millbank Prison. Selina is among those in the prison, convicted for the part she played in a mysterious affair gone wrong. The third main character in the story is Millbank Prison itself, a bleak, looming structure, by the River Thames, of odours and echoes and endless passages where one could easily get lost, and which sets the perfect atmosphere for a brooding story which is delicately wrapped in a veil of mystery and otherworldliness. It is in this world that the threads of Miss Prior’s and Selina’s lives are slowly and intricately woven together. What would be the quality of those threads?
Affinity is about longing for a connection, about desiring to be an essential part of someone. It is about loneliness and vulnerability. From start to finish, these themes evoke overwhelming pathos. And by the end, reading Miss Waters’s last few paragraphs is an intense experience. I think those paragraphs are exquisite, and their poignant impression, if not their exact words, would be hard for me to forget.
I didn't like Wuthering Heights at first, but the minute that specter, Cathy, scrabbled her bony fingers on the window glass--I was grasped by the throat and not let go. With that Emily I could hear Heathcliff's pitiful cries upon the moors. I don't believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight. Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books. --from letter of Isola Pribby to Juliet Ashton, dated 19th February, 1946
I first heard about this book on National Public Radio (NPR) a couple of months before it was even released in the US in late July, and therefore before it even got on any of this country’s bestseller lists, and it was mostly because of that brief radio spot that I decided to read it. Well, I’m glad I did, because it is simply a delightful book. I was guffawing from the first pages to the last. It was hard not to.
The book tells the story of how thirtysomething writer Juliet Ashton, looking to find an idea for her next book in a ravaged post-war London, fortuitously finds herself corresponding with the colorful inhabitants of Guernsey—one of the Channel Islands—about their experiences with reading a variety of books during the German occupation of the island, as well as their more sombre wartime experiences. Thus begins a touching, often funny, love affair between Juliet Ashton and the colorful, sometimes endearingly eccentric, islanders. Not even absence from the island, as is the case for one of the central characters, precludes active participation in the collective love affair. And, as this is set during the magical era of pre-email, this budding love affair is nurtured in the warmest, most swoon-worthy way that love affairs can be conducted—through post. It made me wish computers didn’t exist (I still do sometimes). But besides evoking the warmth and charm of a bygone time when letters were thoughtfully and lovingly written and eagerly exchanged, the story is really about the love of books and reading, and what this love does for us—especially during times when sources of comfort, hope, and wisdom are rare—, and the indifference of good books to our different stations in life.
The plot did have one quite mundane element in particular that potentially could have dampened my enthusiasm for the book, but I can forgive the authors that. My laughs more than excused it. Besides, there are cameo appearances in the story by some authors that I dearly love. And no, I place no significance whatsoever to the fact that the lead character’s initials are J.A. No, none at all.
About the coauthors: This was the first and last novel of Mary Ann Shaffer, longtime lover of books who, unfortunately for us who have enjoyed her book and wish for more, died in February. In an interview with NPR, Annie Barrows, niece of Mary Ann Shaffer and herself a published author, said that her aunt, when her health declined, asked her to help finish the book—which had already been sold by Shaffer—for publication. I include in this post images of two different book covers: the first for the book published in the US (The Dial Press, July 29, 2008), and the second for that published in the UK (Bloomsbury Publishing, April 8, 2008). You’ll notice that the US edition has both authors’ names, while the UK edition only has Shaffer’s name. I was just curious why that was.
Here is a review by Stevie Davies in The Guardian in case your interest has been piqued.
Well, there’s a perfect example of how life gets in the way of reading books (and reading my favorite blogs, for that matter). I started this book a few weeks ago, but had to put it aside to take care of some annoying curveballs. It’s an easy book, but I only got around to finishing it recently. I wish I were capable of reading during lunch breaks, but I find that those times are rather too short and distracting to get me into a reading groove.
I picked up this book because of the hype. I think it’s been on many bestseller lists for a while now. I also heard it being featured, and Brooks being interviewed, on public radio. I usually don’t pick up a book just because it’s on a bestseller list–I actually try to avoid those books–but this one seemed and sounded interesting enough.
People of the Book is a fictional account of the origin and journey, through cities and centuries, of the brilliantly illuminated Hebrew manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to Wiki:
The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. The Haggadah is presently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, where it is on permanent display.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible from Creation through the death of Moses. Its pages are stained with wine, evidence that it was used at many Passover Seders. It is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world. In 1991 it was appraised at US$700 million.
To me, the Sarajevo Haggadah sounds like a fascinating historical and religious object. It is apparently a small but very striking book. In the Afterword of her book, Brooks says that scholars know little about this magnificent book’s creation and history. It is known, however, that this Jewish book was saved from destruction at least twice–during World War II and during the Bosnian war of the 1990s–by Muslim librarians, Dervis Korkut and Enver Imamovic, who risked their lives by doing so. Inspirational stories during these times, indeed, and therein lies the perfect opening for a promising novel. Brooks, who was formerly a war correspondent, also says in the Afterword that, “The librarians of Sarajevo are a very special breed. At least one of them, Aida Buturovic, gave her life as she saved books from Sarajevo’s burning library…” In her dedication, Brooks says that her book is “For the librarians.” And, appropriately, this is a story about the people of the book–as they represent the countless caretakers who, through the centuries, have ensured the survival of the wealth of the world’s knowledge and traditions that are preserved in books and manuscripts–more than the book itself. The novel’s heroine, Hanna, while trying to write an essay about the Sarajevo Haggadah which was about to be put on public display, thought:
I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.