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.