Henry James once said novels deal with the “palpable present-intimate” and the two novels I’ve been reading this month, this and The Way Back to Florence, are both massively successful at enthralling through an intimacy of observation. Both novels are set during WW2, both are superbly researched, soundly constructed, character-driven and intelligently eloquent without indulging in any literary sleights of hand or innovative technique. In short, both are excellent examples of riveting straightforward storytelling.
The Night Watch is the first Sarah Waters I’ve read. As I said, it’s straightforward storytelling but with an architectural quirk – each part goes back, rather than forward in time. Therefore, instead of finding out what happens to her characters, we discover what made them the people they have become. Waters forces us to think back through the war and effects it had on her people. This elegiac motif is set up early in the novel when the lonely Kay enters a cinema halfway through the film, watching the second half first – “I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.”
Rather as Elizabeth Bowen did in Heat of the Day Waters creates a wartime atmosphere in which women, despite all the horrors, thrive in newfound freedoms. And also like The Heat of the Day the novel’s tension line is kept taut by secrets. In fact the novel is a continuing disclosure of the kind of secret intimate moments that define the secret’s keepers.
The characters are fabulously drawn, pulsing with intimate life. There’s Kay the ambulance driver during the Blitz. Viv, in a staling relationship with a married man, works in a dating agency. Her brother Duncan is in prison – here the backward trajectory of the novel cleverly holds back the mystery of his crime until near the end. Julia is a crime writer and Helen works with Viv at the dating agency. Waters does a marvellous job of bringing that period to life. Again like Bowen she creates an almost hallucinatory atmosphere of bombed London in which, ironically, the physicality of life is all the more poignantly emphasised. Waters is brilliant at creating consequential moments through her attention and lively evocation of physical detail. Her attention focussed on “the shadow in which the detail of so many things can be discerned which the glare of day flattens out” as Virginia Woolf said of Henry James. London in the Blitz becomes like an unexplored landscape.
The Night Watch is probably a bit too long – Waters overindulges dialogue at times as if she has a problem curbing the exuberance of her characters – and the male characters were a bit anaemic compared to the rich and full bodied female ones but it’s a gripping read written with extraordinary vividness and lots of heart.