Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch
Our private love trembles to be enough
Where no rituals reward our desire;
Shy and weary we battle
For how we are
And map out shorter, safer routes
Through forbidden territories
Which grow large,
– Cherry Smyth, ‘Private Love’
Being in love, especially when you don’t dare acknowledge it, is a bit like being in a war zone. There’s the same sense of risk, the same apprehension of loss, the same fear of being found out, of being caught unprotected. There’s the terror of knowing that at any moment the truth could come dropping from the sky and utterly destroy you – and the secret thrill of acknowledging that possibility to yourself. There’s the constant weariness of the extra effort required, and underneath it, a deeper apprehension of how fleeting your time is, and how important it is that you seize the day, hold on to whatever pleasure it affords you. And even as you suffer and cry out for relief, there’s the certain knowledge that your life will never seem this vivid, this meaningful, ever again.
‘All is fair in Love and War’ we are told. But the truth is that nothing is fair in Love, or in War. The very concept of justice ceases to exist. The passion that drives us to arms, or into them, knows nothing of fair play, nothing of right or wrong – it exists only to feed itself, and its entire force is a kind of hunger, what Yeats memorably called ‘a lonely impulse of delight'. If we persevere in our love and in our hatred, if we continue to fight and embrace against all odds, it is only out of a kind of perverse determination, a sort of pure will. Calculation does not enter into this, these are acts of authentic heroism.
And it is precisely this heroism that Sarah Waters’ exquisite new novel, The Night Watch, is about. Ostensibly, The Night Watch is about four people – three women and a man – living in London during, and just after, World War II. It is the story of how they survive those years, emerging from them badly scarred, but managing, somehow, to cling to their shattered lives. It is, on the surface, simply a novel about their grief and their courage.
But hidden behind their simple, almost too familiar stories, secret as a code, is a much grander novel about the mysteries of forbidden love: about the ways in which we come to desire those we are not supposed to – other women, other men – and how this love of ours overpowers us, betrays us, makes us both less and more than we were, less and more than we could be. It is a story of the first accidents by which two strangers come to recognise a common need in each other, how they discover ways to relate to each other, evolve simulacrums of relationships to take the place of the connections society will not allow them, and discover too late that even these ‘artificial’ relationships can have feelings that are much too real, and that the pain you feel is heightened, not lessened, by the fact that other people won’t recognise it. It is a novel about how terrible it is when love ends – how awful it is to be the more loving one, the one who gets left behind, but also how monstrous it is to be the one leaving. This is not a story about four people, it is four people about a story; unnameable longing is the key character here, the other players are only the eloquent mirrors in which we see her shape. (more…)
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