Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oh you found another home, I know you're not alone, on the nightshift

I usually have a good sense of what a book will be like before I read it. That's because I read a review, know the author or got a recommendation which led me to pick up the book in the first place. Sometimes I completely miss the mark, as with Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. I went in thinking it would be a light, funny novel. Not the case at all. A great book, but neither light nor funny.

I just had a similar experience with Sarah Water's the Night Watch. Probably because another literary British writer, William Boyd, put out a thriller set in World War 2 at the same time, I thought this story set in World War 2 would be a thriller. Nope.

Told in reverse chronology (1947 to 1944 to 1941), the story follows four Londoners in the grey London homefront and aftermath. The reverse approach may seem gimmicky to some, but I liked it. Waters sets up these characters as clearly marked by their wartime experiences and we slowly learn why. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but in some sense it made me think of how we learn about people in real life. When we meet someone as an adult, they have histories about which we sometimes get glimpses. When we later learn more about them, their current behavior or personality often makes more sense.

None of the principal characters in the book are in the military, but all are affected by the war. In most cases, the war damages them, although one, who served on the Night Watch as an emergency responder, thrives. Waters, whose claim to fame is showing the hidden world of lesbian Victorian England, here shows us the horrors, large and small, visited on civilian Londoners.

While I thought the book was both too long (in 1944) and too short (in 1941,) I enjoyed it overall. I suspect it will benefit from a re-read, at the very least the initial section.

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