Sarah Waters is no stranger to literary awards. Among her many accolades she was named as one of the top 20 Granta authors in 2003, and her last book, 'Fingersmith', was on the shortlists for both the Man Booker and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her latest book, 'The Night Watch', has also - unsurprisingly - reached this year's shortlist for the £30,000 Orange Prize.
In her previous three books ('Affinity', 'Tipping the Velvet', 'Fingersmith') Waters has written about lesbians in Victorian times. For 'The Night Watch' she still has lesbian characters but the setting is London in the 1940s.
The novel starts in reverse in 1947, that grey time just after World War II. The characters we meet are beaten and at a loss. Their emotional exhaustion is not just due to having struggled through the war, but can be mainly attributed to relationships that are dying, and the effects of traumatic experiences that linger on. These characters are numb, putting on a faded brave face to mask their unhappy secrets.
Viv, who works in a dating agency, is beginning to accept the truth about the selfish lover that she has wasted so many years on. Her damaged brother Duncan, who spent the war in jail, works by choice in a dull job in a candle factory and lives a suppressed life with the slightly creepy elderly Mr Mundy. Helen, who works with Viv, is still going out with Julia, but panic and jealously are setting in as she realises that Julia is about to move on. Kitt, who used to go out with Helen, now prefers to live like a mole in the dark - her happy, busy life driving an ambulance in the war now over.
The book then moves back to 1944 to the 'Little Blitz' which was a time of intense bombing in February and March. We find out more about our characters and what made them the way they are.
Waters obviously did an immense amount of research, as is evident by her ability to conjure up a vivid sense of living in London in World War II. Her attention to detail is what makes this book so believable – whether it is describing the grisly effects of a blast, an air raid while locked in a cell, an illicit picnic or the raw scene of Kay's jealousy attack over Julia having lunch with another woman.
As 'The Night Watch' moves back to 1941, the jigsaw of these peoples' lives falls into place. Some parts here are hard to read and Waters does not shy away from recalling painful experiences in detail. The ending is so effective you will want to read the first part again.
'The Night Watch' is a quiet, melancholy, well-crafted book that will keep you hooked. As the book sleeve claims, you will believe every word that comes out of her mouth.