Nobody does Victorian “frissony”-pastiche like Sarah Waters. When I think of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith I get a naughty grin; when I recommend them to people I gesticulate wildly and say things like “Yes, yes, wonderful. Och!” And then I close my eyes and make (what I think of as) a blissful face. Inevitably, I also go on to rant a while about how it was a literary travesty that Waters was denied the Orange Prize for Fingersmith in 2002 (or the Booker for that matter. I mean which would you choose: a boy on a raft with a tiger puzzling out the meaning life or Dickensian lesbians??? No contest). I’m fuelled in this rant by the fact that I’ve met her (well, I shared a lift with her at the Lesbian Arts Festival last October, and had her sign a book or two) and she’s so incredibly eloquent, intelligent, thoughtful and, well, rather cute. And, also, small (virtually pocket-sized). All of which predisposes me to like her new novel The Night Watch and to champion it for the Orange Prize, and, lo, I *did* like it and do champion it. It was pretty darn good.
Undoubtedly, it makes all manner of breaks with her career thus far and so constitutes a bit of a shock to my Waters’ adapted system. Gone is the pure joy of the Victorian extravaganza that has served her so well in the past in favour of the rather grim, rather heavy-laden war and post-war years. Set in 1940s London, it fractures a narrative between four point-of-view characters, one of them heterosexual, another male. [Some of her more strident lesbian fans consider this to be out-right betrayal of the lesbian-niche and “selling out” to the mainstream. “Get thee behind me straight woman” etc]. Further, instead of that strong forward thrust that characterises her Victorian fiction, it flows backwards: opening in the post-war gloom of 1947, segueing back to the Little Blitz of 1944 and then, for the final 40 pages, to the end of the true Blitz in 1941. The result is a plot powered almost entirely on the mysteries embedded in her four character’s lives. Indeed, the whole novel functions, if you can imagine it, like a massive 472 page flashback, abandoning our protagonists to their unexplored futures in favour of their determined pasts. Waters has one of her characters gloss the text:
“Sometimes I go in half-way through and watch the second half [of the film] first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures…”
What we end up with is quite extroadinarily compelling. The 1947 segment, consisting of a series of set-up vignettes, is thus: Kay – listless, jobless and nearly 37 – rents rooms in the house of a Scientology therapist, Mr. Leonard, and marks her days by the arrival of his patients; “…the woman with the crooked back, on Monday at ten; the wounded soldier, on Thursdays at eleven. On Tuesdays at one an elderly man came, with a fey-looking boy to help him…like an allegory of youth and age, she thought, as done by Stanley Spencer or some finicky modern painter like that.” The rest of her time she spends swaggering around London, often being mistaken for a boy – “her shoes were men’s shoes…she put silver cuff links in her cuffs, then combed her short-brown hair, making it neat with grease…” – and being teased: “Don’t you know the war’s over, Miss?”
In another area of London Helen, who now works as a matchmaker at a dating agency, frets that her novelist-partner Julia is having an affair with a glamorous radio broadcaster, even as she despairs at the monster her jealousy makes her. Her secretary Viv is equally uneasy in her (secret) relationship with Reggie, a married ex-serviceman who spirits her off to country retreats but leaves her inexplicably cold and sexually frigid. And then there is Viv’s brother, Duncan, a reserved young man in his 20s (none other than the “fey looking boy” who visits Kay’s Mr. Leonard) who lives with the sinister “Uncle Horace” and works long hours in a strange menial job for the war-damaged. A chance meeting with an old acquaintance reveals that he was in prison during the war and has committed some undisclosed but bloody crime…
As the stories leaps back into 1944 (by far the longest section of the book at 260pp), the lives of the four protagonists increasingly weave about one another, revealing connections and answering some of our questions – what is the source of Kay’s grief? Of Helen’s jealousy? Of Viv’s uneasiness? What was Duncan’s crime? – but posing more that drive us inexorably back further. Still not even the final brief glimpse of 1941 can reveal all: it has some “beginnings” but the past is a never-ending thread of cause and effect and there is a sense in which the novel has no closure, no denouement. We have been given the chance to partially un-package Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan and the urge to get right back to their hinted origins is infuriatingly strong. We can never be satisfied only with what we have been shown. Some readers have been disaffected by this open-endedness, even turned off completely, but in my view this is only part of the challenge of Waters' fourth novel: it denies fictional neatness in favour of history's delicious insatiability. Always there is the urge to dig deeper, forcing us to ponder and discuss endlessly, and constantly reassess what we know or think we know about linearity, chronology, memory and nostalgia.
Equally, my first instinct on reading the final passages was to leap back to the beginning, eager now to explore futures, to get to “endings”. Of course, this is impossible and we will never know what happens to Kay in her listlessness, or if Viv leaves Reggie, or if Julia is really cheating on Helen, or if Duncan breaks free of “Uncle Horace”. Sarah Waters has made us party to six year terms of four lives, but accedes no climax. Still, she has done a masterful job at spinning out character portrait into a novel, making a drama, if you like, of people’s everydayness. This is, after all, what the trope of wartime fiction is: ordinariness transplanted into the dramatic reveals the drama of ordinariness.
It is clear from the long list of referenced books in the acknowledgements that Waters read widely during her research - in dry textbooks, in memoirs and diaries and in the fiction of the 40s. It really does shine through. The drone of the post-war period when the adrenaline of war and the rush of victory had ebbed away, even while rationing and re-building trammel the population is particularly well executed. The moods of her characters – all uneasy, restless, deflated or unfulfilled having lost some previous intention and purpose – reflect this ambience very precisely, rather beautifully. Also the atmosphere of the war itself: the famous “make-do and mend” brand of British stoicism, the terror and horror of the raids, the decimated streets of London made nightmarish but also reinvented by direct hits and fires. Plus the daily grind of rationing - grey tea, lumpy with milk powder; garish cakes made of god-knows-what; spam, spam and yet more spam. Yet, it is clearly the war that animates Water’s characters, fills them with reckless, infectious lifeliness, as well as a kind of madness, a license to embark in strange, sensational directions (and we know how Water's loves those). Water’s war, it seems, is a terrible facilitator of independence (and, consequently, of plot).
In the interview she gave at the Lesbian Arts Festival she admitted that her original intention was to set the novel entirely in the post-war period; she didn’t want to write a clichéd “war novel” or relay “people’s bomb stories”. She didn’t feel there was anything new to add or to say. She wanted to play with the after effects of conflict, document the psychological and physical restoration process of the many through the lives of the few. But, she said, the gloom of the period was deathly to the momentum of the plot and she realised that she would have to go backwards into the formative years of the war to explicate it. There could be no plot in 1947 without a plot in 1944, or in 1941.
Further, she noted, the war itself seemed loaded with juicy significance for a lesbian writer – and so it is with all those new opportunities for women in the workplace coupled with the relaxation of dress codes (trousers!) and social etiquettes, the blind-eye-turned tolerance to divergent sexuality and adopted masculinities. A veritable honey-pot for Queer romance, while on the contrary side we have Duncan and the other men of the novel, locked up in jail, constrained and tied down, or notably absent in action: the unnamed pilots of the bombers in the sky.
True, all the delicious mystery of Fingersmith and the decadent sexiness of Tipping the Velvet has been distilled and focused down into persona snapshots in The Night Watch, which might sound less than thrilling. After all, Waters reputation thus far has been built on yarn-spinning and plot-action management; but what this new novel shows, and so well too, is how capable she is of propelling us forward and provoking us by means of the actors and not only the Act. There is something quite clean and parsed down about the whole enterprise, yet also pitched in feeling and not melodramatic feeling, but restrained human emotion. This is Water’s writing the sensations rather than the sensational. It shows, also, an obviously talented author flexing her muscles in new and interesting ways, refreshing her historical-novels’ modus operandi (although I’d call it changing rather than “raising the bar”).*
Sadly, I think the problem prize judges have with Waters (and they’ll probably have it again with The Night Watch despite its more experimental qualities) is that they’re not at all sure *what* she’s writing: Is it literary fiction? Or historical fiction? Or lesbian/gay fiction? Is it the kind of thing that should be on Booker or Orange shortlists at all? Perhaps they fall into that old trap: that genre fiction is somehow second-rate fiction. Or perhaps, without a convenient classification, they struggle to “measure” her qualities against the qualities of the Zadie Smith’s and Ali Smith’s and Hilary Mantel’s of this world. What they all seem to agree on though is that Waters is a fine novelist (she just keeps turning up on those shortlists!). Now all they have to do is think outside the box and hand her this year’s “Bessie”.**
* Nevertheless, I can feel a BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies coming on… ;-)
**The “Bessie” is the little statuette that Orange Prize winners get along with their £30,000 cheque. Here is Lionel Shriver (author of the undeniably deserving We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005 winner)) with her’s.