Tuesday, November 24, 2009
After listening to and loving The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters this summer, I made a dash to the library to find more of her work. Particularly, I wanted to find the audio of Fingersmith, which is supposed to be her Magnum Opus. While they did not carry that audio (and will now require an interlibrary loan!) they did have The Night Watch. It has been locked and loaded on my iPod for months, and I've just now gotten around to it.
The book starts out post WWII in London, when everything is dark, shabby and in a state of disrepair and rubble. We are introduced to a cast of characters that are loosely related...sort of a six degrees of separation type of thing. There is Viv and Helen, two ladies in their early 30's working for a matchmaking service. Viv is in a long-term relationship with a married man, and is living a life filled with clandestine meetings. Helen is in a relationship with Julia, a writer, and suffers from a lack of confidence in her ability to maintain Julia's interest and affection. Kay is a lonely, masculine woman who wanders the streets aimlessly and listlessly, and who was once involved with both Julia and Helen. Duncan, Viv's "fey-looking" brother, lives a sheltered life with a creepy "uncle", and frequently experiences anxiety issues stemming back to his life in prison during the war, and the death of his best friend. Instantly the reader's mind is filled with questions. What on earth got them to this point? Everything is grey, blanketed with ugliness from the war, an atmosphere you can feel in your bones.
Chronologically, we then turn the clock back to the heat of the battle, in the dead center of WWII in 1944. How does Helen meet Julia? And what of her relationship with Kay? Why is Duncan so damaged, and why was he in prison? How did Viv meet her married lover? The scenes are almost surreal, with the details of lives unfolding while bombs and buildings fall around them, endangering themselves every time they step out of the house. The war forces circumstances upon all of them, as they all try desperately to grab hold of a shred of normalcy and happiness.
Turn back the clock one more time, to 1941. It is here that we get the answers to our questions about the inception of our characters' relationships and their fatal flaws. It is an interesting way to build tension in a novel, to back into the story, from end to beginning. You don't see if often, but when you do, it is brilliant.
This is a highly character-driven novel. While there is action and chaos in the war happening around them, and the setting is highly atmospheric, the characters' lives themselves are outlined in slow detailed conversations, fractured and damaged psyches, and internal struggles. It is a dark, troubling story with personalities that are so well-developed, personalities that are so real, you feel you know each and every one of them as you would a good friend.
Amidst the experience of listening to The Night Watch, I kept asking myself the question "What is the damn plot????" and "What is the point???". I intentionally avoided reading any synopsis of the book, so I felt I was tromping around blind, waiting for something to happen. But the more time I spent with Helen, Kay, Julia, Duncan and Viv, the more I became invested in their welfare. It took me a week just to mull over the story after I'd finished before attempting a review, and found that I became more and more fond of it as time passed. I'm starting to think that Waters has this effect...she works on your subconscious. And of course her prose is a delight. It flows easily, it is highly descriptive, and is beautiful.
While the presence of lesbianism is subtle in The Little Stranger, in this book it is overt. In fact, it becomes a common theme (i.e. frustration in suppressing their real selves and their relationships in public). And while it is overt, it isn't ever preachy or uncomfortable. Waters actually approaches it in a very natural way and is not distracting whatsoever.
One word about the narrator, Juanita McMahon. Phenomenal. She rates up there with the best of the best. She is not only reading her script, she is ACTING. She is adding emotion, a tremulous voice, a flirtatious lilt, hesitations, inflections, attitude, fear, joy, you name it. It was if there was a little movie going on in my head.
My best advice is that if you like Waters, give The Night Watch a try. You may have to tell yourself to stick with it. There were times I felt I was force-feeding myself, which is a fairly easy thing to do with audio. At the end of the day, however, Waters worked her magic on me.
4 out of 5 stars