The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The night watch sarah watersI haven’t written any reviews for the longest time.  That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading. Nor have I stopped riding the train for that matter, although now my journeys are fewer but longer, so when I do ride the train I tend to use the oasis of the quiet carriage to write for my thesis.  However, the bookshop at my University asked me to write a  recommendation for my favourite LGBT book, either fiction or non-fiction, which brought me back to thinking about the blog again.

The bookshop have been gearing up for LGBT History Month and were planning a display of LGBT books, each of which were to be accompanied by a recommendation from staff and students of the university.  So, once I said yes I had to nominate my favourite LGBT book. How hard could it be? Hmm… well when I got to thinking about it I just couldn’t come up with a favourite.  Most times there is usually something about a book that I just don’t get, don’t like, or makes me feel a bit meh. And really, I don’t read all that much LGBT focused stuff anyway.  Right now most of my reading is thesis focused, when I get the opportunity to read for pleasure I read things that take my fancy more than anything – I am particularly partial to classic and historical fiction, and if there is a lesbian in them that is generally a plus point but there doesn’t have to be one. So, based on my likes I narrowed it all down and it was clear it had to be a Sarah Waters novel – but which one? Well eliminating The Little Stranger, which has no lesbians in it, there could only be one winner The Night Watch.

The brief for the recommendation was what I liked about this book – where to start – this is perhaps my absolute favourite of Waters books, mind you I have yet to read her new offering The Paying Guests yet. The first thing that strikes you when you read The Night Watch is the alternative approach to telling the story. Sometimes, even when a tale is told in linear start to finish mode you still need to know how characters arrive at their present situation, get an understanding of their personal history.  In this book that is just what Waters does by taking you backward through time to discover the loves and lives of the key characters and how they survive, and sometimes thrive, through World War II.  The book is about four Londoners living through the war, but we don’t get their stories from start to finish, instead you start in 1947 and end up in 1941 in a queer approach to telling the tale of queer folk and their relationships.

As with all Waters work, this book is rich in detail, but this one is a little quieter and deeper than her previous Victorian era lesbian tales, and is very much character driven. As you travel backwards through time you discover the histories of each of the characters and learn what makes them who they are in 1947. Another unique aspect is the queerness of all the main characters, both in respect of who they are and their relationships. First we have Kay, a butch dyke, who finds a kind of freedom in war torn London as an ambulance driver; Duncan whose war experience is distinctly different from most young men of his age; Viv, whose love life revolves around a married man; and Helen, whose love life revolves around another woman.  Traveling back in time uncovers the intricate connections between each of these characters, all of whom are living at the margins of normative respectability. By the end we understand how the main four characters have become who they are when we first meet their 1947 selves.

What worked not so well was the character of Duncan. Whereas all the female characters, lesbian or not, were rounded and believable, Duncan appeared to me to be an insipid character who, situated in a different genre of story would surface as a Private Pike type individual. But that might just be my impatient reading of his character, eager as I was to move on to the women’s stories. Of course, it may be that his story needed to be more rounded and filled out a little in order for it to work well. Whether it is my less interested reading of him or the need for him to be more developed, compared to the other male characters Duncan is pale and weak.

However, despite Duncan, the novel is, without doubt, the best Waters I have read to date and the first that I wanted to re-read as soon as I finished it.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Cover of "AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)"
Cover of AFFINITY (VIRAGO V S.)

I finished this Sarah Waters book a while back, in fact it was finished just before Tom died.  However, riding the train to work, reading, and writing – whether for pleasure, procrastination purposes or in fact work – was put on the back burner after Tom died.  My partner and I took time out from work to come to terms with our loss and the big Tom shaped hole in our lives and to start rebuilding our lives together.  Happily the time out for ourselves has healed and renewed us and we are back into our working routines again.  So, it is time for me to get back into the writing habit, even if it is off work topic!

Affinity, the second book published by Sarah Waters is a Victorian gothic horror with lesbian undercurrents. It is unusually written in that rather than being divided up into traditional chapters the book is entirely composed of diary entries that juxtapose the pre-prison life of the villain of the piece, Selina Dawes, against the on-going activities of the protagonist, Margaret Prior, where we meet Selina in the present as a prisoner.  Whilst at times annoying, this style is in fact what encouraged me to continue reading as, via this device, we discover the events that lead to Selina being in prison, watch the relationship between Selina and Margaret develop, and witness an unexpected ending unfold.  And, it is in this approach to the telling of the tale that brings out the atmosphere of suspense and tension which is what drives the reader forward to discover what happens next.

In summary, the story tells the tale of Margaret Prior, a genteel upper-middle class woman, or should I say lady, who is in her late 20s.  Margaret is unmarried and, as is usual and expected in the later half of the 19th Century, living in the family home with her, soon to be married, younger sister and her recently widowed mother.  In the beginning we learn that Margaret is struggling following the death of her father which precipitated a suicide attempt.  As a means of recovery, and to escape the clutches of her mother, a woman who has Margaret’s best interests at heart but would rather she act in a manner fitting the station of a middle class spinster, Margaret becomes a lady visitor to the women in Millbank Prison where she befriends the imprisoned spiritualist medium Selina Dawes.  Over the course of her visits Margaret develops an intense friendship with Selina, which, we learn late in the book, has very much been manipulated by the convict, and of course ends in tragedy.

In keeping with the tension and suspense, Waters leaves more to the imagination than she makes explicit which works for her in many ways.  It is successful as a plot device as it continually presses you to keep reading and discover what happens next.  However she also leaves the reader asking questions about the nature of the special friendship Margaret had with Helen, her brother’s wife; the nature of this friendship is never actually stated, was it lesbian or not? Was it in the vein of a Boston marriage? Although as the two women were not living together independently then that is unlikely.  Are we to imagine a close, romantic friendship between the two women as was accepted and acceptable at the time for women along the way to eventual marriage?  The lesbian desire question is also apparent within the developing relationship between Margaret and Selina.  What is left unstated about the nature of the female relationships in the book works for Waters on two levels.  By not being explicit she does not alienate the much larger straight population from engaging with her novels.  However, despite this approach of not making clear the relationship position between her key characters lesbian readers can read into the situation whatever they will and so Waters keeps both audiences happy. This ambiguity is very much reflected in my favourite quote of the book:

“It is the same with spinsters as with ghosts; and one has to be of their ranks in order to see them at all”  p.59

All that said, a quick and dirty straw poll among those I know who read Waters books seems to divide who likes what with lesbian readers appearing to like the more explicitly stated lesbian novels than those verging towards assumption and guesswork.  Whilst, those of a straight persuasion seem to like her works that have little, or less overtly stated, lesbian content such as with The Little Stranger, which for me was a penance to work through.  I would say that the tensions that Waters set up in Affinity worked much better for me than in The Little Stranger, and yes, this book does work as a gothic horror.  But, and maybe this is more because of personal preferences, for me Waters best offering to date is The Night Watch.