Monday, August 17, 2009

The untelling of life stories (Books - The Night Watch by Sarah Waters)

I am enjoying my backwards walk through the complexly-rendered lives of Viv, Duncan, Kay, Helen, Fraser, and Julia, and the other characters of Sarah Waters novel The Night Watch, set in 1940s London during and just after the war. The effect of Waters's decision to proceed backwards through time emphasizes the notion of what the war made of these characters, who are at once ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary for their aspirations - a chance to pursue someone they love, the pleasure of being wooed, success in work, secure home lives - extraordinary because several of those characters are gay (I am using the term to refer to male and female) and, let's face it, stories about gay people who aren't continually having sex, spending the entire night in clubs, dying of AIDS, or offering snide fashion tips are a rarity. Even more extraordinary for the circumstances that the book's characters, gay and straight, find themselves in - World War II London. Amidst the turmoil of nightly bombings, food rationing, and the frequent death of loved ones, somehow their sexuality though both criminalized and pathologized during this period, does not take on as rabid an importance as it might at other times. The theme that Water's combination of ordinary stories of gay and straight lives, wartime, and the backward progress through time achieve is to make me think of the stories not told. I had this thought in the back of my mind and it only floated to the surface when I read this. Viv, a character in the novel, is experiencing a crisis:
They had just moved off across the garden when they heard the sirens go. Betty said, 'There you are. That'd put an end to all your problems - a nice fat bomb.'

Viv looked up. 'God, it would. And no one would know, except for you.'

She'd never thought of that before, about all the secrets that the war must have swallowed up, left buries in dust and darkness and silence. She had only every thought of the raids as tearing things open, making things hard. She kep glancing up at the sky as she and Betty walked to John Allen House, telling herself that she wanted to see the searchlights go up; that she wanted the planes to come, the guns to start, all hell to break loose...
Somehow the stories that are given voice in this novel give rise to the awareness of the myriad stories that never get told, that's the literal effect of the war - stories cut short. Added to the ordinary lives of characters who happen to be gay - stories usually not told. And with those, the backwards progress through time - a sort of 'untelling,' of stories. This artful combination has, in 300 pages, quietly accumulated a surprising poignance.

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