The Night Watch
By Sarah Waters
From Times Literary Supplement
Carol Ann Duffy's Telegraph review
Personally, I prefer this little profile of Sarah Waters in The Scotsman.
Carol Ann Duffy (Yes, you have been informed I like her poetry) claims Night Watch is "a quieter, sadder book than its predecessors". I disagree. Affinity left me heavy-hearted for a long while after I put it down. The Night Watch does not possess the same heart-breaking tragedy, but it is still haunting with its affliction of nostalgia.
Sarah Waters calls her previous novels (Affinity, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) "lesbo Victorian romps." (I like the word "romp." It’s a plumb bird of a word, stuffed with colour and play.) Of course she lives to regret it. "Why, oh why, did I ever allow the phrase 'lesbo Victorian romp' to cross my lips?" she later groaned in an interview for Fingersmith. I also say. ;p
The Night Watch is not a romp though. It’s a deviation from Waters’ earlier Dickensian pastiche. (Oh, I loathe the word "pastiche." Brings to mind all those dreary postmodern tutorials we had to sit through in the university.) Her new book is set in the 1940s.
Set in grey London, you feel the character of the city in her dust and fallen buildings, the people in their fears and loneliness. A ravaged city and her damaged souls. All the characters are linked in some way to each other, yet all terribly isolated in their own manner.
Kay was an ambulance driver during the war. Now she lives alone, and walks the London streets at night, wandering.
Viv is having an affair with a married man. She can’t leave him, and he will not leave his wife.
Duncan was in prison during the war. But for what?
Helen, whose jealous passion for Julia threatens everything.
The story starts in 1947, and it jumps back to 1944, and finally 1941.
Look back at what you would lose. The affliction of nostalgia.
All we have is the here and now. In the darkness we reach out - because not to do so will be unbearable. Yet to love is to risk, and only in possession can there be dispossession. So to love is to know loss. At the end is just the wandering, the nostalgia of what we risked and lost; Kay in her haunted walks. Duncan in his prison cell.
We struggle against it. We clutch desperately to our unhappiness, even as it devours us and we come to despise the face that stares us back in the mirror. Better the pain you can hold onto than the alternative; Viv with her married lover. Helen with her jealousy.
How does it feel after I put down the book?
I have been Kay. I have known Duncan. I have known Viv. I have been Helen.
I have felt how it was to love with the kind of pain Waters writes about. It made me think of all my failed loves, the loves of my friends - and wonder why we do the things we do, just to find love.