Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Disturbing, suspenseful, haunting, keenly observed, extremely well-written, packed with history and historical details. I didn't know how to begin, so I've just listed what comes to mind. Once again, it's WWII London. (I can't stop reading these.) This book is unflinching, and in addition to war, bombs, and deprivation, it offers abortion, suicide, and prison. The story is told backwards: the first section is 1947, the second is 1944, the final, 1941. It works though, and in some ways the structure alleviates the suspense, though in other ways it enhances it.

How much historical detail can you pack into a book? This book goes for the record. How much research must the author, Sarah Waters, have done? It's steeped in facts – want to know which London churches were destroyed by bombs by the spring of 1944? Or what the conscientious objectors, imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs, ate for dinner? This book has it. Food, fashion, working conditions, living conditions, class issues, gender issues – everything is in here. But it's not too much. Waters never lets the detail overwhelm, but uses it to provide a verisimilitude that is impressive. It also helps dispel any faux nostalgia for wartime life. These years were cold, hungry, and frightening. Life (especially for those on the margins) was perilous, restricted, stifling. But the story is good! And some characters find some freedom at the end (which is really the beginning).

Here is a link to a review in the Guardian.
(Book 15, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Sounds good -- I have sent Cathy a link to your review, as I gave her this book for her birthday -- as I probably mentioned! She's going to be studying this period yet more for A level history next year.

Becky Holmes said...

Maxine, maybe you should read it with her. It's really heavy in places. The botched abortion and the suicide are graphic and disturbing. I'm not implying she's not mature enough, because I'm sure she is. It's just scary stuff for anyone.

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