Friday, June 24, 2011
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
'The last set of railings in the street,' said the warden, as he took Kay and Mickey down the area steps. 'What luck was that, eh?"
Through Kay and Mickey we experience the devastation of the blitz while buildings still burn, bodies lie in the street, bricks are falling from buildings left with gaping holes and the percussion of bombs in the distance reminds us that the moment still holds danger. These women are part of a team whose job it is to deliver first-aid or retrieve body parts in the aftermath of an air raid. Kay is often mistaken for a young man with her slicked hair, dungarees and cuff links but it's clothing she feels comfortable in as a butch lesbian.
Waters has written The Night Watch in three parts, working her way back in time through 1940s London. Beginning with 1947, we meet the central characters and are teased with secrets from their past. Viv and Duncan are brother and sister, she is having an affair with a married serviceman and Duncan has been left shell-shocked but not by an enemy bomb. Involved in a terrifying incident he serves time in prison and has to endure the disappointment in his father's eyes during visits. Other men's boys spent the war fighting for their country while his spends his days as the topic of whispers amongst neighbours. Helen is Julia's lover but their past is linked with Kay's and while on the surface all seems well there is an undercurrent of doubt, suspicion and jealousy.
Nothing too small escapes Waters' eye for detail such as describing the bite marks on a cup that define it absolutely as belonging to a child. There are also plenty of pots of tea, sips from whisky flasks, gas rings and blackout curtains to evoke the atmosphere. And humourous moments such as a soldier mentioning to another how his girlfriend would somehow manages to turn her ankle whenever they passed a jeweller's window are welcome to lighten the mood. The paragraph I quoted and two other scenes were absolutely gripping and had my own house been crumbling around me I don't think I could have put this book down.
The Night Watch is clever and once I finished it I immediately wanted to turn back to the first page as the beginning of the book is actually its summation. Things you read early on now make sense, we know what makes the characters tick and their secrets have been revealed.
If you want to experience the Blitz in literature I hold books such as Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, Marghanita Laski's To Bed with Grand Music or Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven in the highest favour. But Waters didn't embarrass herself with this one, in fact, it was quite entertaining and well worth the time spent reading it.