Early springtime, London, 1944: the Little Blitz period of suddenly redoubled enemy air-raids after the comparative lull that followed the Blitz proper of 1940-41. Two women sit drinking tea on a pile of sandbags on the Marylebone Road. The tea is grey, and probably made from chlorinated water; the powdered milk is lumpy; they nonetheless engage in ‘the usual women’s quarrel’ over who should pay. A sandbag splits, revealing its stuffing of earth, and bits of grass and flowers. ‘“Nature triumphant over war,”’ one of the new friends declares, ‘in a wireless voice: for it was the sort of thing that people were always writing about to the radio – the new variety of wildflower they had spotted on the bombsites, the new species of bird, all of that – it had got terribly boring.’ It is as though one of those muddy, confused old photographs has come alive and started to talk.
The Night Watch is Sarah Waters’s fourth novel, her first to abandon the ‘frissony’, ‘pastiche’, ‘lesbo-Victorian’ theme developed, to great popular and critical success, in Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002). ‘Frissony’, ‘pastiche’ and ‘lesbo-Victorian’ are all terms Waters herself has used in self-description – though generally not all of them at once – and they are both accurate enough and unfair. The books are indeed pastiches: Victoriana as a queer theorist might perform it, with costumes by Judith Butler, prisons and madhouses by Foucault. They are indeed frissony, being peopled by young women just becoming aware of their sexuality, in scenarios involving much disguise and dissembling, and silky drawers with slits. But the books are less theatrical, less formulaic than the labels make them sound; Waters is not at all one of those writers setting out to profit from what Henry James called the ‘fatal cheapness’ of period fiction. Her work is always rich in feeling, and clever, and precise.
That Waters has decided to move her historical interests on is courageous, but not surprising. The wonderful Fingersmith surely took the queer 19th-century pastiche as far as it could go. The tale is sensationally melodramatic: while composing it, Waters recalls rubbing her hands at her desk, cackling demonically at its sudden drops and turns. And yet, it’s not for mere twistiness that the book lives on in the mind, but for a nightmarish sense of infinite jeopardy, the labyrinthine impossibility of the Victorian woman’s condition. And then, a few pages from the end, comes a shock out of proportion to all the rest: the most awful betrayal and abandonment, a revelation as ‘sharp and clear as a line of lightning in a sky of black’. It’s one of the most forceful, original moments in recent fiction, and one of the most profoundly sad.
Waters’s new novel tells its story in reverse chronological order, in three sections, set in 1947, 1944 and 1941. ‘So this is the sort of person you have become,’ it opens. The character berating herself is called Kay, and she’s mooching about, spying on her landlord’s visitors, dressed in greying underpants and a collarless shirt. She haunts her dingy rented room like a lost soul: before stepping out, she puts on slacks, men’s shoes, a pair of silver cuff links. Another character loves watching her, and, just for fun, calls her ‘Colonel Barker’; perhaps she was ‘a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF, something like that: one of those women, in other words, who’d charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over.’ As it happens, Kay spent the war working for the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, pulling out the dead and the injured from under buildings, driving an old grey van by night through broken, burning streets; but that isn’t the whole of her story. She’s also a 1940s version of the woebegone lover last seen so horribly keening towards the end of Fingersmith.
Within its three sections, The Night Watch has four main sets of characters. As well as Kay, we have Helen and Julia, an established, apparently comfortable lesbian couple, the one a clerk at a lonely-hearts agency, the other a rising murder-fiction writer who has recently sold a story to the BBC. Only, Helen is threatened by Julia’s good fortune, and lets herself get madly jealous; it’s as if she had a ‘seething, wizened little gnome-like thing’ tucked inside her breast. Viv, Helen’s kindly, glamorous-looking workmate, is described as having ‘a layer of grief, just below the surface’; one source of that grief appears to be Reggie, her married lover. ‘I’ve been bursting for you all day, Viv,’ he says on their latest outing. She doesn’t believe him, but puts her hand inside his trousers to keep him happy all the same.
Viv’s brother, the delicate, ‘fey-looking’ Duncan, has a weird job in a candle factory: his old friend Robert Fraser can’t believe it when he finds him there, working in what is essentially sheltered employment for people too damaged to do anything else. Plus, Duncan has moved in with an elderly man he calls Uncle Horace, although he is no relation, ‘the man neat and dark-suited as an undertaker, the boy patient, serious, handsome – like an allegory of youth and age . . . as done by Stanley Spencer’. But how did a working-class boy like Duncan ever meet a public schoolboy like Fraser in the first place? That’s one of the few mysteries Waters is happy to clear up at the outset. They met a couple of years ago, when they were cell-mates in Wormwood Scrubs.
Life is not right, in other words, for any of Waters’s characters. Each in a different way starts the novel uneasily, watching and waiting, restless and subdued. Living conditions are odd, ambiguous, compromised. Relationships seem skewed and unstable, thrown off balance by hidden loads. Of course, the recently ended war has a lot to answer for: odd houses jut, the only ones surviving from whole terraces; buns are made with saccharine, not sugar; the lonely-hearts agency does a roaring trade in demobbed soldiers, husbands who no longer recognise their wives. And yet, in some ways, Waters’s protagonists were happier when the war was still on. ‘It’s funny, thinking back,’ one says. ‘Some things were easier, then. There was a way of doing things, wasn’t there? Someone else had decided it for you, said that was the best way to do it; and that’s what you did.’ And partly, it is exactly this loss of intensity, purpose, direction that makes these souls appear displaced.
Kay, it turns out, is a woman doubly bereft, of the lover she has lost in circumstances that are, to begin with, unclear – ‘It’s no more than happened to thousands of us. Who didn’t lose someone, or something? I could walk on any street in London, stretch out my arm, touch a woman or a man who lost a lover, a child, a friend’ – and of the war work that suited her so well. A minor theme of the novel, beautifully handled, is how wartime was liberating for women such as Kay and her great friend, Mickey, with all the young men out of the way. They could wear their hair short, they could ‘charge about’ in brogues and ties; they were respected by everyone they worked with, their private lives irrelevant so long as they were brave and could drive a van. Then the war ends and the ancient order is restored. Mickey finds a job as a petrol-pump attendant, a garage forecourt being one of the few public places a woman can get away with wearing trousers. ‘Don’t you know the war’s over?’ a man in a shop mocks Kay; he makes a face at the other queuing customers when he thinks her back is turned. ‘The best thing to do was brazen it out,’ she thinks; presumably, this sort of thing happens to her all the time. ‘Throw back your head, walk with a swagger, make a “character” of yourself. It was tiring, sometimes, when you hadn’t the energy for it.’
The long central section of the novel takes place during the terrible air-raids of early 1944. Because we’ve already seen 1947, we know that our protagonists will not die in them; that source of tension is replaced by a strange, sad attentiveness as we wait for these mysterious creatures to show us more of themselves. The sirens go, explosions are heard, the ack-ack guns start up in Hyde Park; and the reader is plunged headlong, with Kay and Mickey, into the disciplined selflessness of the trained emergency worker – ‘not unafraid, because only a fool would be unafraid on a job like this; but awake, alert, alive in all her limbs’.
This first run out into the chaos of an air-raid is a marvellous piece of writing, made up of clause after tiny clause of detail: factual, physical, emotional, poetic, slotted one by one into place. The sounds are ‘very like those of an ordinary Guy Fawkes night’, but the smells are different, ‘not the simple-minded smell – as Kay thought of it now – of ordinary gunpowder, but the faint stink of burning rubber from the guns, and the putrid scent of exploded shells’. As she gets nearer, her windscreen silts up with pulverised brick and stone and plaster; her wheels crunch and snap; she can see nothing, and can barely control the wheel. The shining body of a plane appears, lit by a searchlight; a line of shells rises up from the guns. A mansion block has taken a direct hit though, luckily, most of the residents were in their underground shelter; what amazes Kay, even now, is ‘the smallness of the piles of dirt and rubble to which even large buildings could be reduced’. A woman and a man are strapped in and taken to the nearest hospital. ‘Is that old Mrs Parry? Is she dead?’ On the way back to the depot, Kay and Mickey, breaking the rules, get out of their van to smother the fires springing out from incendiaries, the bigger ones with sandbags, the smaller ones with their feet. Later, Kay is sent out for a second time, on what is called ‘a mortuary run’; the little jaw is the very worst part. The little jaw with its milk teeth still intact.
The backwards structure also assigns a central role to memory, unreliable though it is, and its even more volatile adjuncts, romance and nostalgia. Around the same time as we see Kay driving her ambulance, Julia and Helen start meeting up, and falling in love with each other, in spite of previous commitments. Helen, the younger and, she thinks, less confident partner, talks about how she first started sleeping with women: it was the beginning of the war, and she’d only been in London for six months. ‘It never felt strange, as perhaps it should have done . . . But then, so many impossible things were becoming ordinary, just then.’ For Helen and Julia, the streets and society of wartime London take on a hallucinatory quality; through their affair Waters seems to be writing a love poem to the city she lives in, adored even more than usual in its shapeless, vulnerable, treacherous wartime state.
One night during their courtship, the women step out with only a single torch to guide them, on a midnight walk around the ruined churches of the City. They watch people descending into Blackfriars Underground Station, with their bags and blankets, like ‘mendicants or pedlars; refugees from some other, medieval, war’. From the bridge they see the river running ‘gleamlessly’ beneath them, ‘a channel, a gash in the earth’. Somehow, they get lost around Eastcheap as they feel the coming vibrations of an air-raid siren; the flash from the explosion makes the stitches in Julia’s collar seem to ‘spring from her body into the air, to leap into Helen’s eyes’. The women embrace for the first time shortly afterwards, behind a heap of sandbags baffling an office doorway. The coats they unbutton to effect this, holding them together to form a sort of inner wall, make for an eroticism much sharper, much more modern, than in the Victorian novels. There’s nothing ‘frissony’ about it. It’s simply sex.
The Duncan story, though diffuse and not entirely coherent, is shocking, ambitious, morally searching in a way that contributes greatly to the final force of the book. Robert Fraser, it turns out, was sent to prison as a conscientious objector. When we first meet him, two years after the war has ended, he has been working for a charity helping to house refugees and displaced persons:
You’re wondering how it was for me, working with those refugees, listening to the stories I had to hear – knowing other men had fought while I’d done nothing . . . It made me sick, if you want to know. Sick with myself – not because I’d objected; but because objection hadn’t been enough . . . Sick, for being healthy. Sick, simply, for being alive.
Is Fraser for real, or just a talker? No one is ever sure.
And Duncan’s story marks another wartime reversal. There all the novel’s women are, ‘charging about’; and here are Duncan and Fraser, sitting in their cell at Wormwood Scrubs. ‘A month in prison was like a street with a fog in it; you could see the things that were near to you clearly enough, but the rest was grey, blank, depthless,’ Duncan thinks, his interior monologue like an inside-out version of Kay’s nocturnal journeys. There are no air-raid shelters for the prisoners, and no fire wardens either; when the bombers come, they are left without guards for the duration, shouting insults at each other, banging on the walls. One prisoner has an idea that if only the Germans can be persuaded to bomb the prison, he might get an early release. ‘Hey, Fritz!’ he shouts. ‘This fucking way!’ When the raids are bad, the shouts could really unsettle you, Duncan finds. ‘You began to picture Giggs as something like a great big magnet, sucking bullets and bombs and aeroplanes out of the sky.’
Duncan, the reader assumes, is in prison for being a homosexual; but the truth turns out to be a little more complicated. It remains undisclosed until the novel’s final pages and, when it comes, doesn’t quite add up. But it makes sense in a deeper way, tying together the novel’s exploration of sexuality, shame, stigma, with other currents to do with heroism and cowardice, the point and pointlessness of war. And it is right in a yet deeper sense, to do with what an academic might call the historicity of Waters’s project. ‘Tell me truly,’ an older lesbian called Binkie teases Kay at a wartime party on Mickey’s barge. ‘Doesn’t the life we lead ever get you down? . . . Sometimes I think quite seriously of finding some nice little chap to settle down with – some quiet little Liberal MP.’ Another character undergoes a horrific abortion, performed by a moonlighting dentist; when it goes wrong and she can’t stop bleeding, she is afraid to go to hospital, because she isn’t married, and because what she has done is illegal. Duncan, like these women characters, has done something that was generally punished in the 1940s, but which (by law, at least) is punished no longer. And so, among its other riches, the novel represents a series of measurements very precisely taken between – to use Henry James’s categories – consciousness ‘old’ and ‘new’.
Because the novel tells its story backwards, its point of origin comes right at the end, in a short series of little explosions, moments of compressed heat and intensity, during the first, apocalyptic Blitz of 1941. These explain the condition we found our protagonists in at the beginning, wandering in circles, picking at broken pieces. The backwards movement also allows what might otherwise have been a formless and depressing story to close on a moment of joy, as something ‘fresh and unmarked’ is discovered, miraculously, at the centre of one horrible big bang. There is something of Mrs Dalloway in this ending; something, too, of Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed. There is nothing at all of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, although both novels share an interest in seeing broken things swooshed back and made whole.
That ‘fresh and unmarked’ thing, emerging from rubble, dead bodies, plaster dust, what the ARP warden calls a ‘doodah’ (a disconnected lavatory gleaming in the dark), also ties off a pattern of imagery the novel has developed throughout: seen also in ‘the warmth and the life and the solidness . . . in comparison with so much damage’ of Helen and Julia, soon to be lovers, loitering in an abandoned, shaky house; seen also in the Nature Triumphant tableau so aptly mocked by the tea-drinking Julia. The new-life-in-the-middle-of-destruction idea does indeed sound ‘terribly boring’; as may the very notion of writing a contemporary novel set in London during the Blitz. But Waters grabs the clichés and transcends them. Like a skilled and lucky actor, she has found her own emotional correlative for the apparently distant experiences she is writing about.
Waters was born in 1966, a generation after the Second World War ended. The lives she is writing about in this book could never have been her own; yet they cannot be said to be remote. They might be her parents’, her neighbours’, her grandparents’. Not that she will ever know. Most people reading this will know what I mean. Most people will know, also, that welling, choking feeling that comes on when looking at the old pictures, films and books: that ruined bus in Balham, rocking on the edge of its crater; the sad, kind voice of the ARP warden who leads you in and out of the Blitz Experience at the Imperial War Museum, flimsy and sentimental though that installation is. The memories, suspended in faces and voices that are both faraway and vivid, sit on the edge of untouchability, marking an everyday, unbridgable distance. The past is always present. And yet the past is dead and gone.
There is nothing obviously postmodern about The Night Watch – no footnotes, no funny type, no authorial interventions – and yet, in an important sense, it’s a novel not set in the past at all, but in the ‘palpable present’ (the phrase again is James’s) of its own research. Everything in it is written in the footprint of the available evidence – the films, the photographs, the novels, the voice recordings, all the ‘little facts’ that James so disdained – but with every scrap of it reconsidered, reimagined, refelt. The style, completely different from that of Waters’s Victorian books, is that of a writer who has absorbed many, many novels of the 1930s and 1940s; it’s damped, inward, even a little brusque (Waters herself has called the effect ‘restrained’). It’s modern without being Modernist, exactly. It has Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann in it, and Patrick Hamilton, and Denton Welch. The language is rich in period detail, not locked up for best in the china cabinet, but out there among the everyday cups and saucers, working hard: ‘You nit’, ‘Little git’, ‘You darling’; ‘Look here’, ‘Awfully winning’, ‘Such a brick’. An ‘awful old pansy’ in the prison sleeps with strings round his head to make his hair go curly; a pregnant girl vomits tea and Garibaldi biscuits. What one character calls ‘the whole grisly L-business’ another calls ‘the hurly-burly of the Sapphic chaise-longue’; Mickey’s boat is named, very wonderfully, the Quaint Irene.
In a recent essay, Waters explained that she started The Night Watch not at all wanting to write about people’s ‘bomb stories’: ‘for how, I thought, could I possibly say anything new’ about the war? It was the postwar period that really interested her, ‘that bleak, shabby, exhausted time of social change and moral readjustment’. But then, she found she could not move her characters forward without propelling them backwards, into the horror and the glory of their recent pasts. Reading the book, and reviewing it, opens analogous surprises. Waters’s ‘bomb story’ does not at all read like a piece of period fiction. It reads as utterly new and fresh and urgent, both in what it says and the way it says it. It’s a work of great beauty and authority and sympathetic imagination.
Plus, there’s a bonus waiting for the reader who gets to the end and, as you have to really, immediately starts over. The second time you read the 1947 section, it doesn’t seem as bleak as it did the first time, whether that’s a hopeful illusion or because you notice things you missed before. ‘The possibilities made her giddy,’ one character thinks, even if ‘maybe she’d never do any of these things.’ But this, surely, expresses exactly the most enduring change that British people, and women in particular, underwent as a result of wartime, and the tired, drab years after it. ‘But oh, how marvellous it was, just to know that she could!’