Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Night watched

So glad you chose this Valerie, it has been on my ‘to read’ shelf for ages but I’ve been saving it to savour. Wrongly as it turns out. What I really did like about it was the period detail (and that particular period) so that even though I think it needs to lose 100 pages, at least the excess of words had some atmospheric merit. She sets some vivid scenes – eg Helen and Julia’s walk through London in the blackout – but I think she’s stronger at this than characters. I couldn’t be bothered with any of them really, except maybe Viv, which is perhaps why it seemed so long. In something like Poisonwood Bible or A Fine Balance you care so much about the people that it could go on for ever, or maybe a sequel, but not here.

Does writing it ‘backwards’ make a difference? Yes and no. She is quite skilful and not too irritating in leaving clues and then revealing the truth – I didn’t mind that (eg what Duncan had done to land him in prison). But it takes away all narrative tension in eg Kay’s frantic dash across London to find bombed out Helen when we all know she isn’t there, but is with Julia. Did you see Stuart, A Life Backwards on TV some months back (or have you read the book by Alexander Masters)? The concept here was what had led to the young addict/vagrant being what he was, and it was his idea to write it this way. That was a very moving drama, and the backwards bit really worked. I think however it’s a bit of a fad at the moment.

I think one of the initial reasons for writing this was wanting to express the anticlimax of the post war period, especially for women who had been liberated, in many ways, by (both) World wars. But you rather lose that thread as you arrive back at 1941, so I think ‘backwards’ isn’t the best way to bring this out. I hadn’t thought about the chaos of war being liberating for lesbian women, so it would be quite interesting to know how the closet door slammed shut post war – but we don’t get that. Apparantly Water's aim was to 'write lesbians back into history', which is laudible but not fully realised here because of her structure, I fear. It is also another book which one is recommended to read twice to fully value - I don't have time for this very often, and I think it is lazy of authors to expect it.

Helen SO glad you enjoyed the McEwan and also thought it his best (do read Amsterdam if you haven't already - not harrowing). It certainly provoked as much discussion and debate as any we've done, didn't it?