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1. Sarah Waters (2006), The Night Watch

I really enjoyed this. It was incredibly readable, very cleverly structured, and less mannered than Fingersmith (the only other book of hers I've read). I mean, don't get me wrong - Fingersmith was also really good, and did an excellent job of parodying and subverting the tropes of Victorian literature. But it felt like a pastiche as it did so, and also inherited some of the cloying gloom of the source genre. The story and characters in this seem more genuine and easier to care about by comparison, and the whole feel of the novel is fresher and lighter - despite the inherently dark setting of London in the Second World War.

It is certainly a very vividly-told story, with lots of small details about people's mannerisms and the settings the characters inhabit, which really bring them alive and speak volumes about them alongside their main actions or dialogue. And the depth of the research that has gone into it is very obvious well before you get to the long list of acknowledgements at the back - but never feels like it is being crow-barred in or weighing down the story.

Its most unusual feature is that the three main chunks into which the story is divided are presented in reverse chronological order. First we meet and get to know the main characters after the war in 1947; then we wind back to 1944 to see what was happening to them during the later part of the war; and finally a shorter section rounds off their stories with another step backwards to 1941. Over the course of this, it becomes clear that people who know very little about one another have actually been moving in and out of the peripheries of each other's lives for years - you can trace a circle of connections between all four of the main characters, but they are only ever aware of isolated pairs of links.

The format of course creates opportunities for all sorts of backwards and forwards resonances through the story, which the readers experience in the opposite order from the characters. There is a sort of inversion of knowledge and understanding as the novel goes on - in the first part, all sorts of little details which are clearly significant to the characters are puzzling to us, but by the end of the novel we can see the full implications of small events which seem unimportant to them. And the different periods in the main characters' lives are linked together by repeated themes or motifs - damaged buildings for Kay, tea and sandwiches for Helen, windows for Duncan, toilets for Viv - which we see occur in starkly contrasting situations as their stories unfold.

Obviously, this being a Sarah Waters novel, lesbian characters are strongly featured - but she seems to be branching out a little here. Of the four main characters, two are lesbian women, but one is a gay man and the fourth is a heterosexual woman. Perhaps in keeping with the step forward she has taken in time, the lesbian characters are also much more secure in their sexuality than Waters' Victorian women usually are (as far as I can tell anyway - I only know Tipping the Velvet and Affinity through TV adaptations). This is not a novel about women (or men) discovering their sexuality, but about them living with it.

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( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 11th, 2010 11:04 pm (UTC)
Donna's brother got me Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger for Xmas - looking forward to reading it :) I read 3 of her books I had in a set - Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity.
Jan. 12th, 2010 09:20 am (UTC)
Well, let us know what you think of it. I'm quite tempted to pick it up myself now I've read this.
Jan. 12th, 2010 12:35 am (UTC)
This is what I like about your book review. It gets me to hear about books I might not otherwise. I've never heard of the author, but once you started talking about reverse chronology, I was instantly intrigued! I like weird plot structures when pulled off well.

I've added it to my Amazon wishlist, which likely means I won't actually get it for another year (although I've got plenty of stuff waiting to be read anyway, so it doesn't make much difference!), but I look forward to reading it when I do!
Jan. 12th, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
Aw, well - glad to be of service! I use my Amazon wishlist a lot like that too - as a way of collecting long-term reading goals, rather than necessarily an immediate purchase-list. Hope you enjoy it when you get round to it.
Jan. 12th, 2010 07:30 am (UTC)
I thought this was a smashing book, the best of hers I've read so far. (I thought The Little Stranger was very readable, but unsatisfying.)
Jan. 12th, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
Yeah - I was wary of labelling it Her Best Novel Yet!, especially since I've only actually read one of the previous ones. But from my limited experience, it did seem extra-specially strong.
Jan. 12th, 2010 10:00 am (UTC)
I absolutely loved that book and almost in wartime style rationed myself to a few pages at a time when I was about halfway through so I could savour it rather than rush through it in a devouring fashion.

I also really enjoyed Affinity - very vivid brilliant storytelling. Don't think I've lent my copy out yet so if you'd like to borrow it let me know.
Jan. 12th, 2010 01:27 pm (UTC)
Oh yes - I definitely found this hard to put down! Though didn't really apply any rationing myself, especially as I read this mainly over Christmas, so was quite happy to just stay up late reading if I wanted to.

On Affinity, unfortunately because I have seen the TV adaptation, I know all the plot twists now, so am not sure if I can be bothered to read it. Many thanks for the offer, though, and if I change my mind I will let you know!

I hope they do a TV adaptation of The Night Watch, though - it could be really awesome.
Jan. 12th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
This is the first Sarah Waters novel to grab me too. Costume drama is not my thing, esp Victorian lesbians but as you say this novel is far more. I found the gay man storyline especially poignant. I have now got her next in h/b :-)

Btw I think we used to be Friends way back but got lost somewhere: I have re added you partly due to current Dr Who obsession - hope this is ok! Also, fellow academic (sigh).
Jan. 12th, 2010 01:28 pm (UTC)
I don't think we ever were friends previously, though I have certainly seen you around on mutual friends' journals. But yes, Whovian academics should stick together, so am friending you back.
Jan. 12th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
fantastic! :-)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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