Tuesday 4 January 2011

Waters run backwards

The final book I read in 2010 - deftly added to the list I posted a couple of days ago - was Sarah Waters' The Night Watch. This is my third Waters novel, and this year was the year of Third Time Lucky (c.f.: Evelyn Waugh; Muriel Sparks) - but not, as it happened, with Waters. That sounds like one of my shortest reviews, doesn't it? Sorry, folks, but I'm not stopping there... After quite liking Affinity back in 2003 or 2004, I loved The Little Stranger this summer - and if it hadn't been for that frustrating ending, it would have been one of my favourite reads this year. But I had caught the Waters bug, and my post-Christmas read was The Night Watch, only approx. four years after everyone else.

For those who haven't read this already, I'll give you a quick overview. The unusual angle of The Night Watch is that it is told backwards. Events kick off in 1947, and work their way backwards to 1941, stopping off in 1944. That's not as many stepping stones as I expected, when I read various reviews of this novel in 2006, when it was published, and it does rather put the novel between two stools. On the one hand, there are all sorts of clues laid down regarding past events (further on in the narrative); on the other hand, since there are only three sections - and the final one is very short - it feels a bit like Waters didn't let herself experiment quite enough. Al this leads me, if you're not careful, to start talking about sjuzhet and fabula, or histoire and recit, if we're getting all theoretical. Apologies if this is known already, but quick crash course in a bit Russian Formalism: 'fabula' is the chronological series of events; 'sjuzhet' is the way this is arranged in a narrative. So Waters has her sjuzhet all in a twist.

Which all means that Waters could be a little self-conscious when she writes this:
"I go to the cinema," said Kay; "there's nothing funny about that. Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way - people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that's just me..."
But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

There are plenty of characters, and plenty of things going on, in The Night Watch. Sarah Waters being Sarah Waters, quite a lot of the novel is about being a lesbian in wartime (I loved the if-you're-in-the-know reference to 'Quaint Irene' from Mapp and Lucia as the name of a boat) - and four of the central characters are lesbians, who seem to all be in love with each other at various stages of the novel. Well, one of them - Mickey - appears to be immune to the charms of Helen, Julia, and Kay, but they are all embroiled with one another. To be honest, I didn't find any of the female characters particularly well delineated - throw in Viv, Helen's colleague at a sort of post-war dating agency, and they all rather blurred into one. Even Julia's novelistic career didn't help me remember which one was which until we were a hundred or so pages in.

Not so the men. Viv's brother Duncan is doing a menial job in a factory, and has a surprise reunion with Robert Fraser. Duncan's naive, bulky uncertainty and Robert's confident charm are done very well - but the reader has no idea what sort of reunion is taking place. Were they colleagues, comrades-in-arms, or romantically involved? I couldn't possibly tell you, of course...

I'm being a bit critical, so I shall redress the balance - Waters' structure is often done very well. The careful laying of clues, and all manner of mysterious events, lead to plenty of gasp-moments in the second half. Obviously I shan't reveal these, but the secret passing of a ring; curious Uncle Horace; and whispers of infidelity are all clues to watch out for... and lead to satisfying 'oh, right' moments later.

But as with The Little Stranger, which was almost all compelling reading but had a dud 100 pages, The Night Watch is longer than it needs to be, and drags occasionally. At her best, Waters can tear a story along - but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited.

And then... I feel a bit mean, quoting this bit, as it's the worst offender - but:
"What's the matter? Aren't you happy?"

"Happy?" Viv blinked. "I don't know. Is anybody happy? Really happy, I mean? People pretend they are."

"I don't know either," said Helen, after a moment. "Happiness is such a fragile sort of thing these days. It's as though there's only so much to go round."
Do people talk like this? Did people ever talk like this - except in novels? It's the sort of thing 1930s plays are scattered with, but I doubt it ever spilled over into read life...

But I'm only picking all these holes because I'm trying to work out why The Night Watch got shortlisted for all sorts of awards. There is so much to like in Waters' novel, and it was definitely compelling reading much of the time. Writing the narrative backwards is a good idea executed without pretension, but also perhaps without reaching its potential. But somehow, for me, Waters missed the mark. The Little Stranger was very nearly a brilliant novel. The Night Watch was very nearly a very good novel. I've not read all of Waters' novels, but... is she destined to always fall short from her potential? Or am I a lone voice in the wilderness? Fans of Waters - convince me!


  1. Hi, it's my first time commenting :)

    Have you read Fingersmith? I've only read that and The Night Watch, but thought Fingersmith was superior, with excellent pacing and plot twists.

    I have The Little Stranger on my TBR, I'm encouraged by your positive comments because several others I know thought it wasn't one of her best.

  2. Can't help you with this one. I've never read her, and you aren't giving me any incentive to try her.

  3. I love her! Grrr... you're just wrong! Try Fingersmith though, thats pretty good. lge.

  4. Out of all of Waters' novels I've read this is my favourite one. I think it's probably because it was so different to any of the other novels I was reading at the time and I thought the chronological structure worked brilliantly. But it seems that most of her fans love Fingersmith which didn't do anything for me. But I'm a big fan of Waters' work so am planning on reading it again just to see what I missed the first time round.

  5. Laura - Hi Laura! Welcome, thanks for commenting. That's not one I've read - I don't usually get along with historical fiction, which somehow doesn't seem (in my head) to include 20th century settings - but if the pacing and plot are better, and it keeps Waters' great writing, then maybe I'll try. Do give The Little Stranger a try, it's great!

    Susan - I do think Waters is a really good writer, which is probably why I was a little harsh at times in this review - because she could be *brilliant*, and somehow misses the mark for me.

    Luce - but I have said she's really good! There were just some things which made it not work completely for me... I still think Waters is a brilliant writer, just not so hot on pacing etc... Might well try Fingersmith one day.

    Sakura - Your favourite? More than The Little Stranger? I am in a minority it seems! I agree that the chronology idea was really good - maybe it's my love of short books which means long books have to have AMAZING pacing to work well for me?

  6. Fingersmith was my least favourite Waters novel and this fluctuates between my second and third least (alternating with Tipping the Velvet depending on my mood). Fingersmith is her best and could easily be considered Victorian fiction as opposed to historical if not for the pesky publication date.

    Have a look back into the archives of the Guardian Book Club to mid 2010 and listen to Sarah Waters speak about The Little Stranger; it may relieve some of your frustrations regarding the ending.

  7. I love the diversity of comments about your review, but at the end of the day, it is pretty much all down to personal taste, isn't it?

    I always voice my own opinion and let people make up their own minds, although that doesn't mean I shouldn't say what I think.

    I have only read one of her books and that was 'Affinity', which I have to say I really enjoyed, so I probably wouldn't be put off trying another of her books.


  8. Claire - I'm confused, you say Fingersmith is both her best and her worst! Which one was a mistake? ;)

    Yvonne - that was the first one I read, and I seem to remember enjoying it. Based on the diverse opinions here, it seems you could read more or less anything next!

  9. Claire - p.s. thanks for the hint about The Little Stranger; I'll have a hunt for that when I'm not at work.

  10. I really loved this book, as I've loved all the Waters novels I've read (Fingersmith and The Little Stranger). I think, for me, the appeal largely comes from how easily she seems to take on the voice of other eras. For instance, you note that the bit of unrealistic dialogue sounds like something out of a 1930s movie--that seems appropriate in a 1940s novel (even if it isn't realistic). I read a fair lot of historical fiction, and I've hardly found any authors who manage to evoke the voice of an era so well. And then she uses that period voice to explore themes that couldn't be discussed openly in the past.

    Personally, I've never had issues with her pacing, but it could be that I enjoy the feeling of immersion in the era too much to pay much attention to that. And I know what you mean about the female characters here. I actually found Kay easy to set apart from the others, but I continually got Julia and Helen and Viv mixed up for the first 1/3 of the book. I put that down to my general inability to remember names, though, and not to any characterization issues on Waters' part.

  11. Simon, I think you've hit it absolutely on the head. I think she's wonderful ... but I still have a feeling that if she was a bit more disciplined, she'd be even better. I was disappointed with The Night Watch, though seem to recall (it's been a while since I read it) some wonderful descriptions of London in wartime.

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  13. I haven't read the Night Watch, but have to agree with you about Waters. At moment's when I was reading 'The Little Stranger' my heart was in pure ecstasy, and others where I wanted to light it up with a match out of sheer boredom (maybe I'm being a bit dramatic). I'm curious to read it for the bit about the unrealistic dialogue. I thought I was the only one that gets bothered by that sort of thing! In 'Little Boy Lost' -which I loved- there were moments of that same kind of dialogue which I thought was a case of time difference. Is it just us not understanding the times or is it cheesy writing? I choose the latter.

  14. Teresa - thanks for your comments, they've certainly made me think. I suppose you're right that people might have picked up 'unrealistic' dialogue from films and theatre, and simply reproduced the style - as people do today. And maybe I just struggle with long books!

    Mary - you've said in a sentence or two what it took me paragraphs to say! I think that's exactly it - the frustration of someone seeming to me ALMOST brilliant, but not quite.

    Daniel - I can't decide, on the latter debate - Teresa has thrown me into confusion! But I do love the image of your emotional rollercoaster while reading. Hyperbole is the best!

  15. I liked this book, I didn't LOVE it. In fact I didn't think that the chronological element was as clever as the hype and marketing said. Having said that I thought she evoked the period wonderfully and I kinda liked the characters.

    Its actually her last two books I have been left rather 'meh' by, I loved 'Affinity' though!

  16. Simon S - I think you're right, hype played its part in making it a bit disappointing to me - if I knew nothing about Waters I'd have been more impressed.

  17. I totally loved this novel -- I love all her books but I think this has to be my favorite. I read it twice, actually started it again the moment I'd finished it to see how it read once you knew the revelations of the reverse chronology. I thought it much better than Little Stranger. Good thing we don't all always agree, though, as that would be really boring.


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