Bloody Sarah Waters.
I’m in the middle of rewriting an old manuscript of mine set on the Somme in World War One – about a woman ambulance driver.
Now I’ve just stupidly read Waters’ The Night Watch, which is in part about a woman ambulance driver in London during the Blitz and it’s done my head in.
Mind you, I’m very glad I read it. I was putting it off for fear it wouldn’t be as brilliant as Fingersmith, and it is indeed very different but equally compelling.
I’ve read a few unkind or at least unsure reviews but, by God, the woman’s a chameleon. Fingersmith is a perfect rendering of the sensational Victorian novels – think Wilkie Collins or perhaps Mrs Henry Wood – as well as the erotica of the era. (I was less convinced by Tipping the Velvet, which felt too predictably like Rubyfruit Jungle in costume.)
Now she has switched eras and perfectly captured the feel, sombre mood and even the syntax of the novels written by women during or about the War. One feels almost as if it’s a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard or Elizabeth Taylor, except of course there’s that modern courage about issues of sexuality and politics that Howard in particular never quite summoned (understandably – if only Howard’s Sid had run into Waters’ Kay, life might have been rather different for the Cazalets).
Waters has chosen to unravel a narrative backwards from 1947 to 1941. I heard her speak here a few months ago, and she explained that she wanted to reveal her characters gradually, just as you find out about people when you first meet. But even though their pasts, and specific events, are made quite clear during the narrative I was still profoundly shocked at the climax. Not by the fact of the event, but as a result of her precise prose.
The Night Watch will stay with me for some time.
I started reading Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley straight away, to take my mind off it, but now I’m stuck in the Potato Famine and it’s too horrible to read late at night. I might have to flee to Jane Austen or something calming.
Bloody Sarah Waters.