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.