Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book 115: The Nightwatch

The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters

At one point, early on in the novel, Kay tells a friend about her movie watching habits: "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" (110). This basically also describes the structure of the novel, and in this case, Waters is completely correct. Told in a linear fashion, this would be an average story about lives intersecting. Given that Waters is the author, it would of course be better than average, but the stories of love and loss are all rather normal. The thing that makes this novel stand out is that it is starts in the middle or at the end, and then flashes back in time maybe two hundred pages later. Of course, I would still be interested in the characters' futures as well but it's life - it's not like you can ever tie it up completely, and in a way, it is rather obvious where their lives are headed, at least temporarily.

As the novel begins, it is 1947 in post-war London. The story centers around four main characters, who are all related in some way. Kay has become a social recluse, something she can afford to do thanks to her priviledged background. Something happened to her during, and she has not quite recovered from it. She lost someone, but who and how remains rather mysterious. Viv works at a matchmaking agency, and is herself involved with a married man. However, there is some kind of connection between her and Kay, leading to the question if she was Kay's lost love, perhaps. Viv works with Helen, who is in a relationship with Julia and terrified that Julia will leave her for someone else. Finally, there is Duncan, Viv's little brother who works at a factory, and was in jail for a few years for a mysterious reason.

When the novel flashes back to 1944, some of these questions are answered, and there were definitely some surprises in the previous connections between these people. Of all the characters, Helen was the least interesting to me, and I think I liked Viv and Kay the most, two very different people and examples of life in World War II London. Finally, in the very last few pages, the novel goes all the way to the beginning in 1941 and shows how the original people met and what set all the events into motion that would still be affecting their lives six years later.

As I said, the thing that really makes this novel stand out is its structure. It's a great read, though, and I love the way Waters gives the reader hints here and there without ever revealing too much but still having it all make complete sense.

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