The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters
Virago Press, 2006
In 1999, Sarah Waters' first novel TIPPING THE VELVET caused a minor sensation. A rich, sprawling tale of Sapphic love in the world of Victorian music halls and secret "women's clubs", TIPPING THE VELVET managed to be outrageously sexy while retaining impeccable literary credentials. Ms. Waters went on to publish two additional books that vividly evoke the Victorian period, the FINGERSMITH (my personal favorite) and AFFINITY. Both focus on lesbian relationships, though they are generally less graphic than Ms. Waters' debut novel.
THE NIGHT WATCH is a very different beast. Set in London during and after the Second World War, it follows the tangled social and emotional ties among three women and one man. Kay is a dominant, mannish person who drives an ambulance during the Blitz, racing out bravely with her comrades to rescue the victims of the bombs that slam London every night. Helen is her submissive, feminine lover, rescued from a destroyed building and sheltered by Kay. Beautiful Viv is hopelessly faithful to Reggie, a married soldier that she met on a train. Duncan, Viv's younger brother, is a shy, sensitive person who might or might not be gay. Over the course of the book we get to know these people, learn their secrets and understand what each one means to the others.
Despite the bombs and the emotional cataclysms, THE NIGHT WATCH is a quieter book than any of Ms. Waters' previous work. Ms. Waters makes the audacious decision to tell her story backwards in time. The book begins in 1947, three years after the war. Kay is a lonely ghost, haunting the streets of London. Helen and Viv work together at a marriage agency, while Duncan is the star performer at a factory for the disabled and the companion of a fussy older man who believes in Christian Science. Over the book's 472 pages, the story retreats to 1944, and then to 1940, when the Germans bombed London for fifty seven nights in a row and killed more than 40,000 civilians. Only at the very end of the novel do we discover how Kay met Helen, and understand the intensity of Kay's need, a need that leaves her empty and haunted when Helen forsakes her for another lover.
THE NIGHT WATCH does not include much explicit sex; it really does not qualify as erotica. However it overflows with desire, hidden and overt, especially the desire that links women even when society forbids such connections. Ms. Waters understands how the physical stirs the emotions, how some quirk of appearance or manner can catch the heartstrings.
Kay whistled. 'How glamorous you look! Just like Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel.'
She didn't look glamorous really, however; she looked young, and small and rather solemn. The room was cold, and the satin chill; she shivered and blew on her hands. She worked again at folding back the sleeves, almost fretfully - gazing once, as she did it, into the mirror, and then turning quickly away.
Kay watched her, with a sort of ache about her heart. She felt her love, at moments like this, as a thing of wonder - it was wonderful to her, that Helen, who was so lovely, so fair and unmarked, should be here at all, to be looked at and touched... Then again, it was impossible to imagine her in any other place, with any other lover. No other lover, Kay knew, would feel about her quite as Kay did. She might have been born, been a child, grown up - done all the particular, serious and inconsequential things she'd done - just so she could arrive at this point, now; just so she could stand, barefoot, in a satin pyjama-suit, and Kay could watch her.
THE NIGHT WATCH is not as flashy a book as FINGERSMITH, but as a writer I found myself awed by Ms. Waters' mastery of her craft. Even in the first pages of the book, I was struck by how vividly she could evoke the gritty, tired, ruined world of London after the war.
A train ran by, two streets away, heading into Clapham Junction; she felt the thrill and shudder of it in the sill beneath her arms. The bulb in a lamp behind her shoulder sprang into life, flickered for a a second like an irritated eye, and then went out. ...
The room was dim. Some of the window glass had been lost, and Mr. Leonard had replaced it with lino. The bed was high, with a balding candlewick bedspread: the sort of bed that turned your thoughts, not pleasantly, to the many people who must, over the years, have slept on it, made love on it, been born on it, died on it, thrashed around on it in fevers. It gave off a slightly sour scent, like the feet of worn stockings. But Kay was used to that, and didn't notice.
The description simultaneously shapes one's view of the world surrounding the character, and with a single sentence, reveals the character's dark and empty state of mind.
Not everyone will enjoy THE NIGHT WATCH. If you are looking for the brilliant twists that made FINGERSMITH such a tour de force, you will be disappointed, though you'll find much of the same irony. If you miss the free-wheeling sexual exploits of TIPPING THE VELVET, you'll have to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, THE NIGHT WATCH is an achievement, and demonstrates that Ms. Waters' expertise is not limited to Victoria's time.
In a haunting sequence which I view as the centerpiece of the book, Helen and Kay's ex-lover Julia set out on a night journey across blacked out London. They pass demolished homes and deserted churches. All is still and dark, as if they were the only people alive in the world. When they kiss, you are almost ready to believe that this is true.
THE NIGHT WATCH is a serious and only occasionally sexy novel, but in my opinion, one not to be missed.