There’s that old joke about being a lesbian trapped in a man’s body. Since Sarah Waters is, only two books in, well on her way to being my favorite contemporary novelist, I guess I should wonder if it applies to me? I haven’t read the three "victorian lesbian romp" books yet, but with The Night Watch I have two of "the other three" (The Little Stranger being the other) under my belt, and I thought they were both brilliant.
The Night Watch is one of those books that gives you the impression that you missed it the first time. Actually, it’s not just an impression. It’s based on a central literary gimmick – being told in reverse chronology – that more or less guarantees I missed most of it. So I’ll be reading it again in the next couple of months. This is just a sketchpad with some disconnected thoughts about it.
First, it’s a hard book to get in to. It’s told, as mentioned, in reverse chronological order. We open in 1947 in the garret of a woman who seems strangely "left behind" by the War. She has no companions, and her life has no meaning. We don’t know what happened to her, only that she’s having trouble adjusting to postwar life. One day at the cinema, another woman we don’t know hands her a gold ring.
We’re also introduced to some other people who are hiding secrets of some kind. There’s Duncan, a "boy" in his mid-20s who we learn was imprisoned for some unspecified but scandalous crime. We’re inclined to think it was homosexuality but … well, did they really lock people up for that in the 1940s? And during the Blitz to boot? Something doesn’t add up.
His sister, Viv, works in a dating agency with a woman named Helen. In their way, they’re repairing damage from the war too – all those people who lost husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. But Helen and Viv hate their jobs, because they sense that they can’t help. Their clients just want to talk about what they’ve lost; they’re not actually making much of an effort to move on and rebuild their lives with someone else.
Helen and Viv each have secrets they almost, but never quite manage to, share with the other – in Helen’s case, that she’s a lesbian, in Viv’s … well, that her brother was incarcerated under scandalous but as-yet-unelaborated circumstances.
It isn’t until near the end of the 1947 cycle that we learn that Viv will be the woman who hands Kay the gold ring at the cinema.
And so you get the idea. The book is partitioned into three sections, each three years in the past from the one that preceded it. Each features the same four characters – Helen, Kay, Viv, Duncan – who are connected to each other through coincidences in ways that they themselves are not always aware of. They are each deeply affected by things that happened in the past, but for most of the novel we have to guess at what those things are. The brief 1941 section – by far the shortest and most to-the-point of the three – "wraps it up" by telling us where it all started. In a way, it reads like a secular – and inverted – refashioning of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The strange ways in which all the characters’ lives are intertwined seem almost supernatural, and while we wonder what, in each individual case, interrupted their now-bleak lives, we know that the central cause will somehow be the War and the Blitz. Because it is told in this way, things that seem insignificant when you first encounter them turn out to be meaningful. And so I sort of know, without concrete confirmation, that I’ve missed a lot of what was going on.
Second, I liked backdrop of Original Sin. It’s a theme that gets more explicit as the book goes on, but once you’ve noticed it’s there you realize it’s kind of implied by the novel’s structure anyway. Nothing in the narrative ever suggests that it’s any of these characters’ faults that they’re unahppy, and yet you get the impression that it is something to do with decisions they’ve made. Which, now that I think about it, explains why I liked this novel so much, one of my favorite themes in literature being exactly that: people making decisions that not only seemed right at the time but also seem right in retrospect, and which even so lead to bad consequences. It’s sort of the theme of my generation – certainly the ("Generation X") one slightly before us – the atmosphere we grew up in. This one’s a variation on the theme. The decisions were bad ones, the characters could’ve seen that they were bad ones at the time, but neither could they really have chosen differently – or, more to the point, chosen better. Even though decision was involved, there doesn’t seem to be a way to go back, do it over, and make it right again. One would simply have to hope for redemption, but that seems unlikely, and since we’re not allowed to see the future, we have no way of knowing if it ever comes.
Third, something about the fact that there are four main characters grabs me. I can’t get the number out of my mind. It feels like there should be three. Four is a number that’s simulatenously too stable and too diffuse for this novel, and yet it’s precisely the right choice. Indeed, if the novel has a weakness, it’s that it’s a little evident that Waters had to put in some overtime working four characters in: Duncan being the weak link, the one who feels like he could have been better-drawn. So it’s a deliberate choice, then – it must be – but why? I don’t know, but I want to know, and when I do my second reading I intend to find out. Four is, in some cultures, the number of death, but that doesn’t seem to be exactly it. My gut tells me it’s that four is somehow too stable – it’s boring, the number of inertia. Too many for your full attention, but still even and balanced and something that feels like it should be manageable, even as it isn’t. It feels right for a novel this staid and grey. It’s the fourth one that robs us of our hope of ever fully coming to terms with this.
As I said, disconnected. I don’t know much about this book from just one read through. I do know that I liked the feel of it very much. Something about it resonates, even if I don’t yet know just what.
Overall Rating (Preliminary) A