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The Night Watch

24 November 06 words: James Walker
"A glance through the book's acknowledgements lists a bibliography which would have university lecturers salivating"

The Night Watch on LeftLionSarah Waters requires little introduction. Named author of the year three times in 2002, her latest offering The Night Watch, sees her shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the second time. Other accolades for the former Open University lecturer include Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, CWA Ellis Peters Dagger Award for Historical Crime Fiction, The South Bank Show Award for Literature and finally a Betty Trask and Somerset Maughan Award.

The 1940s setting of her recent novel, The Night Watch, is a departure from the Victorian world of her first three novels and consequently took Waters a lot longer to research. A glance through the book’s acknowledgements lists a bibliography which would have university lecturers salivating; taking on board diaries, novels, films etc, of which my personal favourite was ‘Few Eggs and No Oranges: A Diary Showing How Unimportant People in London and Birmingham Lived Throughout the War Years 1940-1945.’ Such a list remains a pertinent reminder to all authors that patience and research is as important as the act of writing itself.

On the whole I think she has pulled this off, creating a believable and engaging mise-en-scene whilst dealing with controversial subjects ranging from conscientious objection, suicide to abortion (‘she felt foolish…like a fish, with gapping gills and mouth, on a fishmongers slab.’) The descriptions of the night watch volunteers picking up jaws ‘still full of milk teeth’ after a raid was particularly disturbing which was excellently balanced off with more comical moments. The language was believable although there are a few inconsistencies I take issue with. For example, the use of the c*** word seems out of place for the time, even if spoken by a prisoner and secondly, ‘queer’ seems a particularly modern term and out of place in 1940s Britain although this may reveal more about my own preconceptions than any failings of the author.

In interviews, Waters has confessed a romantic fascination with the period and has produced a kind of Brief Encounters for Lesbians. Other departures from her previous work include a third person narrative and most dramatically, is narrated in reverse chronological order over a six year period (1947 to 1941). This is a particularly interesting narrative device which has left a lot of readers split. On one level this kind of archaeological device works as the more we read, the further we dig into the characters lives, thereby understanding the relevance of the opening line of the novel ‘so this is the sort of person you've become…’ However, for dipsticks such as myself with a poor memory span, this reverse reading can be highly confusing.

Non-linear narrative devices work best when events dip back and forth (think Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) as you get snippets of information which you can slowly piece together, but to simply go backwards takes a lot more concentration, which, unless the reader is retired and can do the book in one seating on Skeggy promenade, is confusing. In the worst case scenario this technique is anti-climatic, like watching an old episode of Columbo where the murder happens in the first minute and you must patiently wait for him to figure it all out. At best, it is symbolic of how human relationships work. Who, for example, hasn’t asked a partner ‘so how many people have you slept with?’ Learning from the past is of course how we understand the future, a point previously made in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. The fact that reading groups will be debating the merits of this for months is justification in itself.

One thing which may have worked against this taking the Booker prize is the gay setting. Not because homosexuality/lesbianism is a taboo subject, but the reverse, it has become, to rephrase Wilde, ‘the love which will not shut up.’ Last year’s winner The Sea touched on the subject whilst previous winner The Line of Beauty had a strong homosexual thread. If this were the case – which I personally doubt – it would be a tragedy as I cannot recollect reading a book which deals with these issues in such a sensitive, subtle and convincing manner.

Waters pulls this off by presenting believable complex human relationships which anyone can identify with, irrespective of gender or sexuality. To pull this off is writing of the highest calibre. She also cleverly subverts a series of sexual stereotypes. For example, heterosexual lovers Vivian and Reggie first meet in the toilets of a train which is of course the perceived stomping ground of heterosexuals. Similarly, the relationships between the lesbian couples is more physical, descriptive, whilst those between men are more tender, in particular Duncan’s relationship with Alex and later Fraser. Duncan is the personification of ‘queer’, an ambiguous and confused individual whose behaviour is hard to place. During the bombings he embraces his cell mate Fraser ‘as if they weren’t two boys, in a prison, in a city being blown and shot to bits’ but as if ‘it were the most natural thing in the world.’

In the prison we see the usual class differences emerge - wardens are safe during raids whilst the prisoners are left to fate in their cells ‘like being trapped in a dustbin while someone beat on it with a bat.’ Prison is supposedly the antithesis of freedom yet as Duncan’s father explains ‘at least we know where he is. We know he’s being looked after. There’s plenty of fathers can’t say that of their son’s in wartime, can they.’ I particularly liked this inventive and abstract perspective as it gives the reader another means of comprehending the atrocities of war. Such abstractions seem to be a popular modern technique and reminded me of Ahlamm, the recent debut film of director Mohamed Al-Daradji which shows the effects of the Iraq war from the perspective of the inmates of a mental asylum.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and well written book which to be appreciated will require concentration. Despite subject matter, it would appeal to a wide variety of readers and should not be thought of as simply lesbian lit. The good news is that The Night Watch is highly likely to follow in the footsteps of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith and make it on to the BBC, which, if treated in the same manner, will be an added delight.

Sarah Waters website
James Walker website


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