Love Among the Ruins

(Anthony Russo)
Reviewed by Tracy Chevalier
Sunday, March 26, 2006


A Novel

By Sarah Waters

Riverhead. 450 pp. $25.95

Over the past several years, English writer Sarah Waters has captured a corner of the market with a genre she created, the "Victorian lesbian romp." Beginning with male impersonators in the music-hall world in Tipping the Velvet and continuing with charlatan psychics in Affinity , Waters graduated to the full-blown Victorian sensation novel in the Booker Prize-nominated Fingersmith . It featured -- along with swapped babies, misplaced wills, wrongful imprisonment and characters with names like Mrs. Sucksby -- a mid-book twist so fiendish that ambushed readers flipped backward and forward as they read, trying to locate terra firma. While some dismissed Fingersmith as a sub-Wilkie Collins pastiche, others felt Waters had managed to write a Victorian entertainment that appeals to a modern audience, primarily through harnessing our sympathies to characters sexually out of step with their society and more in sync with our own more permissible one. It was not always obvious that lesbian protagonists could front bestsellers, yet they have; and in perhaps the clearest indication of establishment acceptance that an English novelist can expect, both Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith were made into BBC costume dramas.

Rather than continue to mine this rich vein, however, with her fourth novel, The Night Watch , Waters has moved outside some of her comfort zones. The novel is set in London during World War II and its aftermath rather than the Victorian period, and it's told in the neutral third person rather than the flashier, sometimes wearying ventriloquism of first-person narration. Waters's style is different, too, dispensing with melodrama to match the rationed, austere wartime lives of her characters with clean spare prose. She still plays structural tricks, though, as she did with the dual narration of Fingersmith : The Night Watch is told backward, starting after the war in 1947, jumping back to the bombings of 1944 and finishing mid-Blitz in 1941.

The novel follows the stories of four overlapping characters: Kay, who dresses mannishly, wanders London and works as an ambulance driver on the night watch during the bombings; Helen, who lives with her writer lover, Julia; Viv, who is involved with a married soldier; and Duncan, who lives in dubious circumstances with his "Uncle Horace" and served a prison sentence during the war. Gradually, we uncover connections between the characters: Duncan and Viv are brother and sister; Viv and Helen work in the same postwar dating agency; Helen met her current lover through Kay; Kay once helped Viv in a crisis. Deciphering these connections can be satisfying -- in particular, the story behind Viv and Kay's exchange of a gold ring -- but at times they feel a little schematic. Coincidence sits more easily within a Dickensian plot than a sober war drama.

The center of the book involves a triangular flowchart of unrequited love among Kay, Helen and Julia and the consequences of their expectations and choices. What gives these choices their piquancy is that we already know the outcome and so can wince at each blunder and misunderstanding. In particular, we uncover what has made the enigmatic, heartbroken Kay "one of those women . . . who'd charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over." All of the narrative strands are eventually pulled together over one evening during the mini-Blitz, with each character's fears surfacing and lives changing as the bombs fall. The Night Watch is especially good at the drama and brutality of these bombings, following Kay and her colleagues as they help the wounded and dying, at times collecting body parts, trying to bring order to the chaos.

Waters has made a flawless leap from the Victorian era to World War II. It is far more daunting to write about a well-documented era that many people still remember than a distant period whose details can be blurred and guessed at. Waters has said she wanted to avoid the World War II clichés of rationing cards and women drawing stocking lines up their calves; nor are there American soldiers handing out chewing gum or housewives saving up their rationed butter and eggs to make cakes. Instead, we get a realistic account of the uncomfortable tedium of wartime life, with an accumulation of period detail that feels both authentic and unforced. Everything in daily life is recycled, saved and accounted for, from the constantly mended clothes to the tinned meat and bobby pins Viv gratefully receives as gifts from her lover Reggie. In particular, Waters gets just right the paraphernalia people use as props to maintain some semblance of control when the world is literally falling apart around them. The women constantly reapply face powder and lipstick, determined to keep up their appearance. And everyone smokes, using cigarettes as a currency for small comfort and camaraderie.

The backwards structure of The Night Watch is its most intriguing characteristic, and also its Achilles' heel. It creates its own sort of reverse suspense, emphasizing the question of why rather than what happens and making us grow more knowledgeable as the characters become more ignorant. However, it also has a built-in flaw: We see the damage wartime events have caused before we really care enough about the characters to be moved. The postwar section, which by definition is less dramatic, takes up a full third of the book, and it drags somewhat, the way continued rationing must have after the war (rationing did not end in England until 1954). The 1947 section contains myriad lacunae that are only filled by the novel's end.

When I finished The Night Watch, I went back and reread the first third; only then did certain comments make sense. For instance, during a break at work, Viv and Helen are discussing the war, and Viv says: "I used to look forward to peace, to all the things I'd be able to do then. I don't know what I thought those things would be. I don't know what I thought would be different. You expect things to change, or people to change; but it's silly, isn't it? Because people and things don't change. Not really. You just have to get used to them."

Only later, when we know what Viv and Reggie have been through together, do we really understand the import of that sentiment. Similarly, Helen talks about the idea of happiness being rationed so that when you've got some, "you start thinking about the person who's had to go without so that you can have your portion." Her comment has far more impact when applied to her relationship with Kay than as an abstract thought, but how many readers will be willing to reread this first, morning-after section to appreciate its subtleties?

Despite these shortcomings, The Night Watch is a sophisticated, beautifully written novel by a writer who has reached her maturity. To achieve it, Waters has sacrificed some of the youthful exuberance that made her first three novels such a joy to read. While applauding her talent, I miss the romp. ·

Tracy Chevalier's novel about William Blake will be published early next year.

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