17 April 2011
…which take up nearly 100 pages, a fifth of the novel. It’s ten or so chapters really, because there are four parallel narratives going on and Waters deals with each point of view in separate sections. We don’t exactly know how yet, but these are also parallel lives. Some of the relationships between these four uncertain, unfulfilled characters are stated: Duncan and Viv are sister and brother, and Viv works with Helen. But what about Kay? In the only short sub-chapter she’s been given, right at the start, all we seem to find out is how all her horizons have contracted almost to nothing, compared – we have to assume – to how things used to be. Sarah Waters is keeping everything else very close to her chest.
This seems to be a habit of this author’s: in The Little Stranger, whenever we think we know where we are with the characters, we’re usually wrong. Nothing about The Night Watch is the same as that novel, except for the unglamorous post-WW2 setting and Waters’ determination to fill in the details about her characters and their relationships only when it suits her design.
I’ll try to be quick. Kay is a young woman who cross-dresses to the extent that from a distance she is usually mistaken for a ‘youth’. She’s terribly lonely where she’s living, sees herself as the mad-woman in the attic of the house she shares with a Christian Science therapist – a quack, for all the good he seems to do. Through him we meet Duncan and the man he pretends is his uncle, Mr Mundy. We have no idea what the story is there, except Duncan is ashamed about something in the relationship. In Chapter 2 we find out that Duncan spent some time in prison three years before, during the war, but we don’t know what the crime is. I’ll come back to that.
We meet Helen and Viv at work in the offices of a match-making agency. It’s thankless work, but the 30-something Helen and Viv, a few years younger, get on ok. Up to a point: Helen is aware that Viv keeps some parts of her life secret from her. And we aren’t sure how frank Helen is about the details of her own life: we find out in Chapter 2, set during a single Saturday, that she is in a long-term relationship with a woman writer, older, posher and more successful than she is. Waters shows us how insecure she feels when, in the park, a woman of her partner’s class happens by – she’s a radio producer the partner has been working with – and is instantly certain that they are having an affair.
Viv really is having an affair, one that has been going on since the war, but it seems to be reaching its end. On the Saturday afternoon we’re with her and Reg, a married man, as he drives them out of London into the countryside. She isn’t comfortable, uses the excuse that ‘somebody might see’ to avoid full-on sex, and thinks back to when she used to feel straightforward affection for this man. By the evening he’s in a hurry to get home and she doesn’t complain. Later, stuck in traffic in London, he has to swerve to avoid a young man crossing the road. Except it isn’t a young man, as he is delighted to realise…. Viv recognises Kay, is appalled, and insists that Reg turns the car around. She doesn’t mention that it’s because of the cross-dresser, but Waters lets us far enough into her thoughts to know that they were very close once. Ok.
Duncan has to work on Saturdays, in a job that seems to have been set up for someone with learning disabilities. A work-mate is a 16-year-old who likes to brag about his (no doubt imaginary) sexual conquests. Duncan keeps quiet. Visitors arrive – and one of them, a magazine writer called Fraser, recognises him. We find out about Duncan’s discomfort before we hear the reason: they were in prison together and Fraser seems to want to become re-acquainted. He’s waiting for him after work, insists – amicably enough – that they go for a drink. But Duncan isn’t used to pubs, is sure that he recognises someone who knows about him, whatever that means, mentions something about an ‘Alec’. We eventually find out that Fraser was in jail as a conscientious objector, but I’m guessing that Duncan was jailed for indecency, some homosexual act. When Fraser insists on accompanying him home to meet Mr Mundy, we don’t know why Duncan is dreading it so much.
What else? In the 1947 world of rationing and illicit tins of ham, Waters is focusing on these ordinary people who haven’t come out of the war terribly well. We can only speculate about what happened to them all, how much connection there is between them beyond what we’ve already found out. We know that Viv is the only member of the Pearce family who will have anything to do with Duncan – he seems to have been deliberately cut off from their father and sister – and… it seems to be something to do with goings-on three years before. This early section of the novel is subtitled 1947. Will Sarah Waters give us a 1944 section? Or will she carry on revealing things bit by bit? I’m guessing the latter.
…i.e. four or five more sub-chapters and, yes, this is the end of the 1947 section for now: I’ve seen that the next section really is 1944. So I did guess, kind of. And Sarah Waters uses the idea of 1940s cinema-going to explain what she’s doing: Kay often passes time going to see films, and likes going in half-way through and staying to see the first half because – and I’m not quite quoting here – people’s pasts are usually more interesting than their futures. It couldn’t be clearer. By the end of Chapter 3 – a third of the way through the novel – we’ve seen these people’s futures and they’re highly problematic. Now, being the thoughtful, well brought up person she obviously is, Waters is going to show us how they got there.
I don’t know why I’m sounding so sarcastic. I was hugely relieved to discover that this really is going to become a wartime novel for a while, and that Waters is signalling her strategy so clearly. The frequent references to ‘three years ago’ are a clue, but it’s good to have it confirmed that we aren’t going to have to piece everything together from fragments. And… I like the way that Waters occasionally ups the cultural stakes: her novels make more sense when you know a bit about literature – I remember a lot of references in The Little Stranger – and, for instance, we only really understand how Kay sees two other characters if we know what a ‘Stanley Spencer couple’ might look like.
As in previous chapters, Waters focuses on a single day. It’s a working day about a fortnight after Chapter 2, and it starts, for the first time in a long time, with Kay. At luchtime she finds somebody she used to know but has almost lost touch with – such a running theme in this section that Waters has a character remark on it. It’s Mickey, a lesbian that Waters has Kay jokingly, but accurately, referring to as ‘butch’. She works as a mechanic, lives on a houseboat and… she and Kay were never an item. That’s that sorted out, then. Like everybody else in this novel, she’s not happy in her work. (Kay’s the exception: she has a private income, and isn’t happy not working.) And we find out, following their conversation, that Kay ‘can’t get over’ the loss of someone in the war. This being a Sarah Waters novel, she ponders on the idea of ‘getting over’ a loss, as if you are traversing the rubble of a demolished building. It’s a literary idea and sharply physical at the same time: these characters know about bombed-out buildings.
Come to think of it, Kay lives in the only house left standing, looking very unstable, in a bombed-out terrace. Another character calls it ‘the crooked house’. How literary can you get? Waters is interested in the places where people live – the house in The Little Stranger is practically a character in own right – so tiny, butch Mickey’s tiny houseboat is demonstrably unsuitable as a place for Kay to lay her head and there are not-quite shared spaces in the house Helen shares with posh Julia. As Chapter 3 goes on and we get scenes set at the end of the day, we get particular glimpses of details: the padlocked back gate at Mr Mundy’s house as Duncan makes his first attempt at an escape; Fraser’s cheap room, still with its wartime blackout curtain, on the ground floor – the ‘front bottom’ as his landlady allegedly calls it.
Locks and keys are another charged subject – this is starting to sound like literary pass notes – and they’re always to do with privacy. Duncan has to go in through Fraser’s window to avoid the shared hall – having climbed the locked gate to prevent Mr Mundy seeing him leave by the front. Earlier, Fraser re-enters Viv’s life, literally, when she and Helen leave their office front door unlocked at lunchtime. Helen assures herself that Julia’s room and desk aren’t off-limits because the keys are in the locks. When Kay gets home late she has to pass the room of the Christian Scientist sending out his spiritual benedictions; he ends up asking her questions, questions – not unlike Fraser with Viv earlier on. There isn’t a lot of privacy in this world.
But the main thing that Waters does is make this a day for linking some of the characters more closely. Kay makes that link with a character we’ve not met before – but she also has a fleeting encounter with another. It’s Viv, who has been haunting the corner of The Strand where where she saw Kay in Chapter 2. Eventually, on the evening of this day, she gives back a gold ring to Kay, a loan that we know was very important to her. (She tells Fraser who, in that way he has, isn’t letting her get on with her evening alone.) The ring is first mentioned in Chapter 2, and I’d assumed it was something to do with Reg. Maybe it is, maybe Kay lent it to Viv for the usual reason – Waters isn’t telling us yet – but it’s definitely Kay’s, used to fit her finger before she lost so much weight….
Fraser knows Viv from her visits to Duncan in prison. Having seen Duncan now – in a charity job and living in an unsatisfactory place with a man they met in prison – he wants to move him on. He’s also interested in Viv, likes her; maybe a future section of the novel will sort things out for them. Mr Mundy, we find out, seems to be keeping Duncan down in the way that Fraser suspects. He treats him like a boy – he’s 24 – and seems to expect some kind of illicit bedtime favours. It’s like something from The Gathering or The God of Small Things: we know about art-house fiction and this sort of child abuse. Fraser is supposed to be seeing Duncan on the night of Chapter 3, but is too busy with Viv. Duncan, with new-found self-belief, decides to go to his place instead of Mr M’s bed. Good for him.
Which leaves Helen. She thinks of Viv’s habit of keeping things private as like drawing a curtain – but it’s Helen who feels the need to lift the veil on her own life. She’s just about to do it at lunchtime at work – what a day for revelations this is – when Fraser interrupts. Damn. She calls Julia for a bit of comfort, gets no answer. Strange. Later, Julia stays out so long Helen can fantasise all she likes about affairs. She comes home, really has been seeing the BBC woman, acts all innocent about not realising the time – and blames Helen for her suspicions. Helen thinks of her jealous nature as a little gnome inside her, turning her into a monster. She blames herself for suspecting Julia who, after reminding her of all the other times she’s been groundlessly suspicious, goes to bed.
After what seems like hours alone, Helen teaches herself self-harm – she cuts her inner thigh with a razor – and goes to Julia to apologise. What an idiot she is, what a monster she allows herself to become.Yes. Except…. It’s preposterous that Julia should ‘forget’ about the time, ‘forget’ to write a note – and forget whether it was lunch or afternoon tea she was supposed to be having. In bed, Helen realises it’s as though Julia is writing a script for her to follow, one in which there’s an innocent party and an absurdly jealous partner. We don’t know whether she’s right, but Waters has made her suspicion very plausible indeed.
And then there’s the way that Helen’s confusion is compounded by her uncertainty about her own class compared to Julia’s. Waters is interested in class – it’s absolutely pivotal in The Little Stranger, and just look at Kay with her private income, and floppy-haired Fraser with his well-spoken ways of getting what he wants. No doubt we’ll be coming back to class.
1944, Chapters 1-3
I love what Sarah Waters has done, and wonder why more authors don’t do it. Has she seen Christopher Nolan’s Memento from 2000, or J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways from 1937? In both of them the audience discovers how a particular state of affairs has come about by being shown, in a formalised, structured way, exactly what has gone on previously. The scenes set in earlier times become charged with a kind of ongoing dramatic irony: we know what the characters don’t. But we don’t know it all: we have to wait for the author to reveal things. So, for instance, we know that the capable, self-assured Kay we meet in 1944 will be a lost soul, a shell of her former self three years later. But we don’t know that the person she loses in the war is none other than Helen. The unfolding of Julia’s careful scheme to take Helen from her is one of the ghastlier threads in these chapters. She hasn’t got her yet, but we know she’s going to.
There’s a lot going on. Viv and Duncan, aside from a single prison visit, are dealt with in separate threads – all the characters are given their turn in the narrative spotlight, as in the 1947 section – but the lives of the lesbian characters are far more intertwined than we realised before: Kay and Mickey at work on the night ambulances, with Kay’s return home to a sleeping Helen; Kay, Mickey and Binkie having homemade cocktails and marvelling at the expensive silk pyjamas Kay has bought Helen on the black market; Julia bumping into Helen accidentally – oh yeh? – and having a cup of tea then, in a later chapter, seeking her out for lunch in a house that’s more damaged than it looks.
There are constant passing references to this secret lesbian world, and to one another. Kay is seen as the almost stagily gallant one; there’s a hint of unease about this, as though it seems that the courtly trappings are a bit overdone. We find out in one of Helen’s sub-chapters that it has always been one-sided, that Kay pursued her while she still considered herself straight. So… it’s not hard to believe that Helen is intrigued by Julia’s interest in her – and easier still to be persuaded that this is what she’s like, passively allowing the same thing to happen all over again. But… the word on the street about Julia – where do we get these hints? From Kay, who knows her? From Mickey, who knows how well Kay knows her? – is that there’s something rather cold about her, almost cruel. (I don’t think I’m making this up.) We remember the manipulative way she manages that row after she’s been out all day and into the late evening on a ‘lunch date’ with the woman Helen suspects her of fancying. Helen, in 1947, knows what Julia is like. She has a history of chewing other people up and spitting them out.
Of course, there may be stuff that Sarah Waters hasn’t told us about. But that’s what’s intriguing. I’m assuming that when she has finished with events in 1944 she will take us forward again to 1947, with more insight into the events unfolding there. But she might not: maybe we’re getting all the insights we’re going to get.
Meanwhile – a word Sarah Waters never uses because she shows us how it works right from the start – there are Viv and Duncan’s lives. They’re shit. We see Viv in the latest seedy hotel room on one of her monthly trysts with ‘Reggie’ as she calls him in 1944. One detail sums it up: her response to the three tired-looking snowdrops he’s picked from a station platform. She is touched by how thoughtful he is, sees it as proof of how right she is to love him. We don’t find out straight away – that’s never how Waters does it – that he’s already married, but we realise pretty quickly that she is a far tinier part of his life than he is of hers. And… she gets pregnant. Something else that Waters hasn’t told us, but has Viv tell her friend in Chapter 3, is that Reggie ‘doesn’t like’ wearing a condom. It’s always been all right up to now, she says. My god.
In Wormwood Scrubs we find out that Mr Mundy is a prison warder, and Duncan likes the way he seems to be looking out for him. Naivety seems to run in the Pearce family: when Duncan can’t sleep, he’s sure that there’s an almost telepathic connection to Mr Mundy. It’s enough proof for him when the spyhole is uncovered and the old warder asks him in a whisper whether he’s all right. Like Julia, like Reg, this man knows how to get people where he wants them – and we realise why Fraser is so appalled to find out where Duncan is living three years later. Perhaps it’s one of Waters’ aims to show that manipulativeness, an urge to dominate, neediness are not the province of one single brand of sexuality. Perhaps.
And all the things that seemed important in 1947 are important in these chapters. Class, attitudes to sexuality, war damage on a literal level that hints at something deeper.
The Pearces are working class, but aspirational. One of the things that makes Duncan’s incarceration so galling for his father is that it seems so ironic, after what he’s tried to do for his son. Later, when Viv discovers she’s pregnant, it’s the same idea that appals her: after all her father has done for her – she’s a typist now, with all those girls who have been to finishing school – she’ll be just like What’s-her-name who got thrown out. Fraser’s another fish out of water in prison, for a reason that other people mutter about among themselves: it’s not for the likes of him, with his background….
With Mickey and Binkie, Kay forces a joke about her inherited money, embarrassed about how much she’s spent on those silk pyjamas – and there’s talk about how things won’t be the same among them all once the war’s over. You bet. But it’s Helen, finding herself in the company of the ice-cool Julia who feels it most keenly. It somehow comes down to the detail of her having been born in Worthing, for goodness’ sake. In putting her at her ease, Julia asserts her authority: she can do this social nicety kind of stuff in her sleep.
We know about the sexual context of all this. But Waters deals with men as well. Binkie thinks they’re nothing but boys, and Viv’s experiences of the simple satisfactions that Reg is after seem to bear this out. (Did I mention he tends to ejaculate prematurely? I am now.) And then there’s the prison, where sexual yearning takes the form of songs – standards crooned by one man, crude army smut growled out by another – or masturbation. Waters doesn’t flinch, as the saying goes: Fraser, in the top bunk, fantasises aloud about raping a girl who isn’t pretty, claims he really did it once, and flings the semen he wipes off himself down into Duncan’s face. His anger seems to be directed at the shine Duncan has taken to Mr Mundy, and we remember a conversation in 1947 in which he says he can prove his own heterosexuality. Oh yeh? Is there more to his pursuit of Duncan than even he recognises? Does the sight of the prison pansies – Waters’ word, in Duncan’s thought-stream – send his latent homosexuality deeper inside him?
And there are buildings. There are at least as many descriptions of ruined houses as there are of the bodies of people killed or injured in raids. One set-piece scene in the first part of Chapter 1 has a family in the back garden still thinking that the damage to their house is minor; they haven’t seen the demolished front. Waters doesn’t make any further point about it – but we know enough now about this author to stop and think about how it might relate to the difficulty of seeing beyond what people choose to present to others. And it’s no accident that the second stage of Julia’s pursuit of Helen takes place in a posh house – Helen actually says that she herself wasn’t brought up in anything like it – but, despite first appearances, it’s beyond repair. No further comment necessary: the woman who wrote The Little Stranger three years later is clearly intrigued by the subliminal messages that houses in novels can convey.
1944, Chapters 4-5
These two long chapters, adding up to a quarter of the novel between them, take us to the end of the 1944 section. And guess what? The short final section, a single chapter, is going to be set in 1941. So, perhaps, the remaining questions – i.e. the things Sarah Waters has chosen not to reveal yet – might yet be answered. Perhaps. Such as, what is the final bit of the story about Duncan and Alec, the boy who died, the bit he can’t bring himself to tell Fraser even in the most life-threatening raid they’ve suffered in the prison? What’s the truth about the ‘misaffection’, as Kay calls it, between her and Julia all that time ago? And have we had the whole truth about the way Kay pursued Helen – in other words, how reliable is Helen amongst this group of unreliable witnesses who tend only to let people see a particular version of themselves?
The sub-chapter that opens Chapter 4 is Kay’s, and it’s full of that dramatic irony I mentioned before. It’s the long-awaited birthday, and Kay is the only person who doesn’t understand why Helen isn’t full of grateful affection. We certainly know, recognise that when Helen blushes it isn’t to do with the heat of the bed, but the mention of Julia’s name. The walk around Hampstead Heath is icy – say no more – and… and what? Kay’s neediness has never been made so blatant. Helen can see it, evidently feels desperately sorry for her – the episode ends with her repetition of the three words we know are no longer true – but, well, we know where this is going.
Where it’s going – fast-forward to the end of Chapter 5 – is Kay’s desperate drive across bomb-blasted London to check whether the flat where she left Helen really has been hit. It’s wonderfully described, and made infinitely sad by what, again, the reader knows but she doesn’t. There have been long episodes between Helen and Julia since Hampstead Heath and, as Kay risks literally everything to get home and burns her face as she tries to stare out the inferno… we know what she still doesn’t as the chapter ends. She sees Helen alive, inexplicably standing there with someone else. ‘Julia! Oh, Julia! Thank God! I thought I’d lost her!’ For me, it’s the most terrific narrative coup of the whole novel.
Helen – who, I now realise, is always with Julia in her 1941 sub-chapters – is developing as a character. Before now, Waters has allowed her to seem like the person that Kay and Julia take her for: solid, straightforward – and, let’s face it, someone to be moulded into the image that others choose for her. That’s been Kay’s mistake, and it seems to be what has set Julia off in pursuit as well. (In the bomb-ruined house in Chapter 3, Helen tries to explain that she isn’t really the person that Julia takes her for, so I suppose we’ve been prepared.)
Waters makes it clear that however this affair started, by the time we reach Chapter 4 Helen is at least as determined as Julia to move it on to the next stage – the one we know about from the 1947 chapters. On the night of her birthday, after Kay has left for work, she is the one who seeks out Julia. But they don’t consummate the relationship inside Julia’s flat – I’ll come back to the little detail of its ownership later – they go out into the risky night. They end up behind a baffle-wall at the entrance to an anonymous block, where it is ‘impossibly dark’. Waters has Julia say what is already clear: ‘Now we’re invisible again.’ Helen keeps mentioning Kay, but Kay can’t see them in one of the pitch-black recesses where things happen in this novel. By Chapter 5, in the flat that Julia is borrowing in one of those tricks played by what she herself refers to as the ‘upper-middle classes’ to avoid requisitioning, the sex is more full-on. It’s clear that it’s over between Helen and Kay, and they are going to have to come clean about it…. This is the set-up for the ghastly moment at the end of the chapter.
Ok, so things get very novelistic in Chapter 5. There’s a horribly bright full moon while all this is going on, at the precise time when at least two of the characters want to keep things hidden. (The other is Viv. Tell you later.) It gives Waters the excuse for the biggest raid in recent days, and for the precision of the bombing of the warehouse near Kay’s flat. But we’re ok with it because, like the rooms where things take place, the ghastly light is somehow right as part of the feel of these episodes. Some critics have compared Waters’ earlier novels, set in Victorian times. to those of Dickens. I’m beginning to feel that it isn’t merely an attention to 19th Century period detail that makes her Dickensian, but her careful construction of a mise-en-scene in any period. She has the eye of a location scout or set designer.
Viv. Her telephone call to Reggie takes place in a broom-cupboard, the abortion takes place in a dentist’s surgery and the haemorrhaging takes place in a show-flat where nothing is real, and where she leaves the fake wedding-ring behind. On the way between the abortionist’s and the flat she’s covering her mouth, pretending to have had emergency dental work done…. You can see where I’m going with this: everything about the pregnancy has been about furtiveness, denial, cover-ups. And Waters seems to be making a sexual politics point when we realise that throughout, only women help her. It’s a man who botches the abortion, and Reggie only seems concerned about the inconvenience and cost. When Kay and Mickey arrive in their ambulance – Viv has never met them before – Reggie disappears. Ironically, Viv feels safest when she thinks the people helping her are men – but it’s as a blow for the sisterhood when Kay lends her a replacement ring as she’s wheeled into the hospital.
Before all this we’ve seen the Pearce family together – except for the mysterious sister or half-sister – in prison. We’d caught the end of a visit in an earlier chapter, but this one is from Duncan’s point of view, and it’s gruesome. The prison setting is as careful a bit of mise-en-scene as anything else in this novel, and I’m reminded that the first Dickens I ever studied was Little Dorrit, in which the Marshalsea is as much a character as any building in The Night Watch. I wonder if that’s where Waters got the idea.
Their conversation is like jabbing at an unhealed wound, as Waters lets us further inside the father’s sense of shame, and the way this fuels Duncan’s self-disgust. For what seems to be the first time he explodes at his father. He regrets it almost immediately, but we’re forced to wonder if this is the beginning of the estrangement between them that we know about. We also find out more, but not much more, about the event that led to Duncan’s imprisonment. Alec is there, dead, and we get a vision of blood on the kitchen walls at the Pearce house. It isn’t until the next chapter that we find out that it’s suicide, that Duncan wanted to kill himself too, that they were only friends despite all the rumours.
And there are the two men in Duncan’s prison life. Mr Mundy is always there in the background, or coming to him with treats and what feels like special treatment. He wants to be, well, not a father… an uncle, perhaps? Meanwhile Fraser is suspicious, and not nearly so self-assured as we thought. During the terrible final air-raid in this section he’s so terrified he begins to doubt his own sincerity over the reason for his objections to war: maybe he’s just a coward? And he ends up lying next to Duncan for comfort. It’s a time for confession, the physical contact is comforting…. But Duncan can’t tell Fraser the whole truth.
Which is where that particular thread ends. One of the things that Waters is good at is deciding what to include and what to leave out. I don’t just mean the details and explanations that leave us guessing; I mean the gaps between episodes. Every chapter is based on a single day or night with, typically, a week or two between each one. A few spaces are filled in – we find out, for instance, that Helen and Julia meet a couple more times before Helen’s fateful visit on her birthday – but, really, all the vividness, the emotion and physical immediacy of these lives come in short bursts. It’s hugely effective, given the wartime setting and the rawness of their overlapping emotional experiences.
And, of course, we get the gaps between the main sections. There are yawning chasms between the end of 1944 and what we know of 1947: Kay doesn’t even know that she really has ‘lost’ Helen at the end of the section, doesn’t know that three years later she’ll be getting the thinnest of solace from her Christian Scientist landlord, urging her to lift up her gaze from perishable things. All the action takes place in eight 24-hour periods in the winter of 1944 and the late summer of 1947, and it’s tremendously intense. Bring on 1941.
A single chapter: beginnings for Viv and Reggie, Kay and Helen; an ending – or a different kind of beginning – for Duncan and Alec. The sub-chapters don’t come in the order I’ve given them, no doubt – i.e. I don’t know for sure – because Waters wanted to end with a very particular sentence. It would be full of promise if we didn’t know what comes in three years’ time: seeing Helen, holding her face in all its softness for the first time, Kay is ‘unable to believe that something so fresh and so unmarked could have emerged from so much chaos.’ It isn’t only poignant in its own right; it’s a foretaste of the even more poignant emergence from chaos that Kay will witness in 1944.
At one level all we’re witnessing are key moments whose later implications we already know about. There’s none of the shock of the chapters set in 1944, in which we’re suddenly brought up close to uncomfortable truths as Waters peels them open for us. I suppose the purpose of this chapter is different: it’s a coda with not a massive amount of work to do beyond reminding us how chancy our lives are. There’s a danger of it being a cliché – everybody has mused at some time on how different life might have been if… if whatever it was hadn’t happened. But Waters’ final word is chaos, and I’m sure it’s a deliberate choice. What emerges from chance events appears to the participants to be fated, charmed, right. Having been shown the trajectories of these stories in reverse, we know better.
Viv meets Reggie in a toilet on a train, and he lies to her about why he has no ticket. She knows he’s lying, knows – because he apparently doesn’t lie about important things – that he’s married with two kids. But Waters allows us a flash forward to Viv looking back at how she ‘fell in love’ with this man teeth first. It’s ridiculous, it’s silly… and we know that although the relationship based on these unpromising beginnings will last six years, it’s never going anywhere.
Duncan’s moment is different, and the fact that most of the episode takes place in his bedroom emphasises how young both he and Alec are. Duncan is heavily under the influence of the (slightly) older boy, the one who sees himself as a Romantic hero. The suicide pact is a kind of game, one which Alec persuades Duncan will turn them into martyrs whose sacrifice will be remembered forever. It’s as preposterous as the fantasies of heroism dreamed up by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – or it would be if Alec hadn’t found Duncan’s father’s open razor next to the kitchen sink. Waters, being the tactful writer she is – didn’t I call her well brought up earlier on? – ends the sub-chapter at the instant before the walls become covered in blood.
Which leaves Kay and Helen. For pages we don’t realise – or I didn’t, anyway – that the ‘girl’ Kay is about to rescue is actually the 24-year-old Helen. (There’s a whole dissertation to be written on how Waters uses the terms ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ in this novel. ‘Girl’, as was the case until the later decades of the 20th Century, is synonymous with young woman. ‘Boy’ is sometimes used to mean a young man, but not routinely and often to emphasise some aspect of immaturity or plain youth in this unforgiving environment. Reggie, at 30 in the train toilet, is an ‘old man’ in this world; when Alec rages against the old men sending the young ones to another pointless war he doesn’t quote Owen’s poem about Abraham wilfully sacrificing Isaac, but he might have done. Perhaps he would have if Pat Barker hadn’t already done it in the Regeneration trilogy.) The mise-en-scene for the meeting between Kay and Helen is a bombed house, and a rescue. Say no more.
The end. All the big bangs in this novel have already happened before this final chapter, but I’m glad it’s there. The best thing about it for me is structural: another three-year backward leap in the time-line reinforces a point that I think Waters is making about fractures. Right at the start I referred to these ‘uncertain, unfulfilled characters’, and the breaking up of the narrative plays as big a part as the shattered buildings or murky spaces in reinforcing our view of their different, but equally shattered, images of themselves. We can think back to what we know about their future selves and see everything about the telling of them as contributing to our understanding. You meet the people you meet, you do your best in your needy, inadequate way to make whatever kind of life you can with them….
I don’t want to overstate it but, shit, it’s the human condition. Waters is satirical about Alec’s self-aggrandising pretensions as he contemplates the significance of his suicide, and I’m sure she’d be slow to make any existential claims for her own work. But by telling the stories backwards she gives us – gulp – a God’s-eye-view of human hopelessness. It explains that final sentence: whatever emerges out of the chaos, it never ends up being what we hope for.
Pass me the razor.