The Night Watch (Sarah Waters)

****

Try Books! greeted this book with relief and gratitude: a real novel at last, with a variety of characters and settings and some lovely instances of detailed evocation.  These included a properly respectful and detailed attention to South London, for instance Our lady from Forest Hill on the books of the marriage agency where Helen and Viv work.

I was also very glad to see some structural adventure:  the story is told in three parts that take place in 1947, 1943 and 1941 and which are set in London. The main characters are Helen, Julia and Kay; three lesbians, who found that wartime gave them more freedom than they expected.  Especially I suppose Kay, who worked in an ambulance unit during the Blitz.  We also meet Viv, a straight woman in a hopeless affair with a married and worthless affair and Duncan her brother, who has been in prison for a nameless and awful crime.  It’s fascinating to see the characters at the beginning and see these strange holes in their lives and wonder how that happened, and then as you go back to 1943 and 1941 you find out.

There are some lovely set-pieces:  Helen and Viv climbing out of their office window to smoke in the sunshine; typists in the Ministry of Food; a candle factory for the insulted and injured; Viv’s bungled abortion which completely terrified me.  I’m not so sure about the coup de foudre where Julia and Helen realise their feelings for each other when they visit St Dunstan-in-the-East during a bombing raid.

The main story, working forward chronologically, is that first of all Kay and Julia are together, then it’s Julia and Helen after Kay has rescued Helen from a hole in the ground; and at the end Kay is on her own and given to solitary wandering of the streets while it looks like Julia is going to leave Helen for Ursula, who works at the BBC.

Kay is a bit given to programmatic utterances.  At the end she tells the trapped Helen We never seem to love the people we ought to, while near the beginning she explains Sometimes I go through the films twice over.  Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first, I almost prefer them that way–people’s pasts being, you know, much more interesting than their futures.  As the other characters remorselessly point out, she plays the true man’s part–she rescues both Helen and Viv and indeed gives Viv a ring to make it seem she’s married, and in the end she ends up with nothing.

We had some discussion about who we identified with, and who we felt the author identified with.  We generally felt the answer to the second question was Helen, since we learned more about her inner life and quite a lot of the action was presented in terms of how it affected her.

The names are interesting:  ‘Kay’ is really the letter K and so short for Kate or something.  Helen and Julia begin with H and J, so we have H J and K.  Where is ‘I’ then?  The author has hidden herself.   It seems that Julia is going to leave Helen for Ursula–‘you’–outside the circle of ‘I’.  Also ‘Viv’ like ‘Kay’ is a pet name–I don’t think we ever find out whether she’s a Vivian or a Vivienne or what.

What’s the point of Viv and Duncan in this story?  It’s clearly something about love and the way time acts upon love–Viv used to love Reggie and now they just go through the motions, while Viv and his friend Alec seem to have had a mutual crush before the unmentionable thing and all the blood.

I’m inclined to think that in line with Kay’s pronouncement above Kay and Viv are meant for each other but it can never happen.  Kay needs a wife and Viv needs a husband.  Kay not only rescues Viv but also gives her a ring.  They are the characters who are known by pet names.

Whatever her full name might be, ‘Viv’ certainly originates from the Latin for ‘to live’.  She and her brother are both associated with blood.  So it looks as though they are on the side of life, while the lesbian characters are condemned to sterility.  It’s hard to believe that Sarah Waters consciously intended that.

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