THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters (Virago/Penguin,) 470 pages, $35 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Lesbiana's best novelist tries a major experiment in The Night Watch. She lets the narrative unfold backwards - we start in 1947, go back to 1944, then back again to 1941. The fact that the novel draws you in although the strategy fails speaks to Sarah Waters's storytelling gifts.
She expands her vision this time, introducing us to multiple characters and more than one emotional conflict. Viv is in thrall to her married boyfriend but for some reason chases all over London after butch-girl Kay.
Writer Julia is in a not-so-terrific relationship with Helen. Duncan meets his old prison cellmate, Fraser, by chance. As usual in a Waters narrative, people are yearning and, most of the time, heart-wrenchingly thwarted. No one writes unrequited love quite like her.
Two things set this novel apart from Waters's other fiction. First, she deals here with gay male desire, and very effectively. Duncan's encounter with his prison guard breaks stereotypes in surprising ways. You never know with Waters which characters are going to win our sympathies.
More important, where previously she told decidedly Dickensian stories, steering clear of the 20th century, she has set this tale during the London Blitz. Thanks to Waters's always impeccable research, there's a real sense of terror as Kay, working with a paramedic team, careens all over the city rescuing bomb victims.
The problem with the backwards narrative is that it doesn't really satisfy. How can it? There's no mystery. We know where we're going, though we do gain some (but not that much) insight by discovering where we've come from.
That doesn't prevent Waters from keeping us hooked.
Next time, though, forward motion, please.