onsdag 8 november 2017

Sarah Waters to the rescue

Finally! For the first time in what seems like ages, I read a book I really liked and didn't either give up on or have to struggle to finish. (This is not counting the odd re-read of a Christie or similar.) Sarah Waters can usually be relied on to supply a well-written yarn - Fingersmith was a page turner, and The Paying Guests was also a good read, though I had problems with Affinity. Nevertheless, the odds were rather stacked against The Night Watch, as far as I was concerned. For one, it takes place during and immediately after World War Two and contains descriptions of London during the Blitz - not exactly the cosiest of settings. (I'm not too fond of World War stories at all, to be honest.) Second, the structure of the novel makes it rather melancholy, as I've already mentioned. It opens in 1947, where we first get to know the book's four protagonists: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. They're not doing great, but then again they're not doing terribly, either. Then the story jumps back to 1944, and finally to 1941, in order to show us how these four characters ended up the way we find them at the beginning of the novel. This means that the characters are stuck with the ending they're given at the end of the 1947 section: nothing that comes afterwards will improve it.

I found I could take this better than I anticipated, though. The end of the 1947 section isn't that bleak; for two of the characters the light at the end of the tunnel is already hinted at. As for the other two, it's not too hard to imagine that life will go on for them as well, and that they will put past and present heartache behind them eventually. Perhaps partly because of the way the novel's narrative is laid out, it is easier than usual to take into consideration that the book's end point is not the end of these characters' lives. Not that we know anything more about their lives, since they're fictional, but you get my drift: somehow, in this context, the "open ending" works.

I didn't mind the war setting, either. The descriptions are very atmospheric, and even I did not get fidgety as the reader follows Kay - a lesbian ambulance driver with a touching gentlemanly streak - on one of her rounds. Kay is the most likeable of the four protagonists, and the strongest of the storylines concerns the love triangle between her, the love of her life Helen, and her ex, the glamorous Julia. The siblings Duncan and Viv, with their questionable taste in men, are somewhat less interesting, but you are swept along with their stories anyway thanks to the high-quality prose. Nevertheless, I was always glad when the novel returned to Kay and Helen. I can't help thinking that men get rather a raw deal in Waters's novels: I've yet to encounter a truly attractive one. Julia may be a femme fatale, but you can see why Helen would fall for her, although it's a terrible idea. The objects of Viv's and Duncan's affections, on the other hand, remain unimpressive.

As for the backwards-in-time structure, it doesn't give you that wow-how-clever feeling you can get from a good Doctor Who episode involving time tricksiness, but it has its merits. You're more interested in what happens in 1941, at the start of the characters' stories, once you've got to know them. As a beginning of a novel, the 1941 section might have come across as a bit slow. The most interesting section of the novel is the middle one, set in 1944, and the preceding 1947 section serves a good springing-board to it.

After The Night Watch, I'm seriously considering giving up on Drood altogether, in spite of the Dickens connection. If you can find something you truly enjoy reading, why struggle on with a book just because you can't put your finger on why you don't like it much? For now, I'll put Drood on ice a little while longer: it's still a bit too early to dump it in the charity-shop bag.