Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

The Night Watch: Sarah Waters

Waters is a tricky writer- she deploys genre tricks (like withholding information and hiding clues as in the detective novel) and modernist tricks (like starting at the end of the story and working back towards the beginning)- but really she's a traditional novelist and her strengths are the strengths of the traditional novelist- the revelation of character through dialogue and significant incident,  social observation and critique, the creation or recreation of worlds.  I think the trickiness has to do with a lack of confidence- not so much in her own powers as in the traditional novel as a viable, saleable commodity. I don't object to it, exactly, because we all enjoy a last-minute twist or reveal- but her work would be even better without it. Because tricks are always cheap. I love Agatha Christie- but why aim at her effects  when you have the skills of a Balzac, an Eliot, a  Conrad?

The Night Watch is the one that works backwards. Of all the tricks she employs this is the least tricky. It doesn't violate plausibility or the integrity of any character, but you could put the chapters in the right order and I'm not sure you'd have altered anything important. Once you've read a novel it ceases to be sequential and all its times become one time (as happens too with one's own remembered past). Anyway, front to back or back to front, this is a tremendous book. Four people in London in the 1940s, their lives intersecting: bombs dropping, the black out,  gay sex, straight sex, Wormwood Scrubs, friendship, family, betrayal, houseboats, offices, Christian Science, heartbreak.

Waters seeds  her novels with key-words. They set the tone. You keep encountering  them- in description, in conversation- deployed in different contexts.  In Fingersmith the word is "sour". Here it is "queer". A rich word because of its multiple meanings. Yes, a significant number of the leading characters are gay but  that's the least of it.  A world at war is a queer world in the older sense- peculiar, out of kilter, agley- a world of empty cities, tottering houses, twisted relationships- a world in which social distinctions cease to matter and women can dress as men and no-one questions it, a world that is shaken and blasted and reconfigured every night.  Incidentally- for all that she's famous as a lesbian writer- Waters does men and straight women awfully well.

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