The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

Keep mum, and don't tell the enemy
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The Independent Culture

The Night Watch is a book bursting with secrets, of illicit affairs, especially lesbian ones, allowed free rein by the confusion and liberation of the Second World War, and often conducted in a blacked-out London, only occasionally illuminated by beams from searchlights. In one remarkable scene, certainly the most controlled that Waters has ever written, and among the most memorable, two women on the brink of consummating their passion for one another take a walk across the blasted city, through rubble-strewn streets and past damaged churches. In the blackness, away from "chatter and bustle and ordinariness and light", they seem to be searching out the possibilities and limitations of their impending love. At one point, they stop to observe "the huge, irregular silhouette" of St Paul's Cathedral, a symbol of "elegance, and reason", as one of them puts it, and of Britain's resistance against Nazi aggression. Their climactic kiss comes in mounting chaos, against a background of "lightening" enemy fire.

Waters digs away at the secrets and deceptions of her characters, sometimes leaving them half-covered or only suggestively exposed, in a manner quite unlike the broad strokes of her earlier fiction. Most importantly, the book's chronology operates in reverse. It opens on an exhausted peacetime scenario of London in 1947, in which the characters appear unable to resolve the issue of whether the opportunities and freedoms they enjoyed in war will extend into the peace; then moves back to the "little Blitz" period of 1944; and finally, in what is little more than a significant coda, "ends" amid the chaotic blasts of 1941.

The action revolves around three women and one man. Kay, dressed in mannish attire and with a short, butch hair-cut, is a restless, prowling creature at the start, unable to rediscover the sense of purpose she had working in civil defence, for London's Auxiliary Ambulance Service. Helen, Kay's lover during the war, has set up a dating agency in which the glamorous Viv, still involved with her married man, is employed as a typist. Meanwhile, Viv's brother Duncan, who works in a candle factory, has spent his war in Wormwood Scrubs. Various threads, some tenuous, some more lasting, link and tie these individuals together. Like ghostly and evanescent presences from the past, connections are delicately woven into the backwards-looking narrative, rising briefly before suddenly disappearing almost from sight. Around these four move other satellites: Reggie, Viv's wide-boy soldier; Julia, a crime writer, to whose upper-class poise Helen is drawn; Robert, a conscientious objector whose path crosses Duncan's in prison; and Alec, whose part in Duncan's downfall remains mysterious until the final pages.

The physical landscapes of women's bodies, lovingly explored, seductively reverenced, and in one horrific, botched abortion scene, bloodily deconstructed, are as much a part of The Night Watch as they have been of Waters' three previous novels. So too is her evocation of period. The benefits of Waters' research are evident on almost every page in hundreds of tiny details, from dingy hotels for quick sex to the wartime currency of food coupons and silk stockings. Attentive readers will also clock up the references to other novels of the period, like the black-out scenes which recall the darkened settings of Greene's End of the Affair, or the picnic in Regent's Park which, for a split second, seems to do homage to the opening pages of Elizabeth Bowen's Heat of the Day (though Waters' prose is more functional than Bowen's).

Waters is an experienced hand at keeping the spring of tension coiled over many pages, and one gallops compulsively through them, desperate to find solutions. She knows, too, how to thrill and titillate. But in other important respects, this new novel marks a significant departure from the genre-inspired fiction of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith. In those earlier books, one sometimes felt that the major characters were like puppets on strings being manipulated by a master creator. Here, nuance and lack of closure replace the plot-driven narratives, and while Waters remains an extraordinarily clever manipulator of shape and structure, the believability of her protagonists is enhanced by the fact that they are no longer mediated through familiar literary stereotypes.

The Night Watch burns with a slow but scorching intensity, like the blasts that constantly put its circle of four Londoners at risk. It's Sarah Waters' triumph, of course, but it also adds lustre to the name of Virago Press. Here is a publishing house, unlike so many others today, with a true identity, which made its name publishing the great women writers of the past. Sarah Waters is a great writer for now and the future. The Night Watch is her coming of age novel.