Celia Rees writes for older children and teenagers. She began writing when she was working as an English teacher and her first book was published in 1993. She became a full time writer in 1997. Her novel Witch Child was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction award in 2001; the sequel Sorceress was shortlisted for The Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2002; and her book Pirates! was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith Award in 2004. Celia lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Below she discusses Sarah Waters' The Night Watch.
Celia Rees on The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
My introduction to Sarah Waters was a random purchase of Tipping the Velvet at Birmingham airport because I needed something to read on a plane. I knew nothing about the author and bought the book merely on the cover and subject matter which sounded interesting and a cut above run-of-the-mill Victorian pastiche. I was not disappointed. I had that increasingly rare experience of discovering a new writer whose work I really loved. Since then, I have devoured each novel with indecent eagerness, often forcing myself to slow down in the reading to allow time to savour and enjoy the writing. Compulsion has won out every time and meant that I've had to read them again at a slower pace to fully appreciate her writing. I have found that each new book contains new riches and my admiration has grown.
As a reader, I hold Sarah Waters in very high regard. As a writer, my appreciation goes further. I am in awe of her seemingly effortless but complete control over every facet of the narrative. I find myself continually thinking: 'How does she do that? I couldn't do that.' I imagine that her command comes from a great deal of hard work, complete knowledge of every twist and turn of plot and subplot, absolute dedication to her task and great cleverness.
In The Night Watch, Waters has shown herself to be not just a writer who is in total control of every aspect of her chosen subject matter, but a writer of some considerable courage. The unusual structure (telling the story backwards) confounds readers' expectations. A quick perusal of reviews on Amazon and chance remarks of certain prize judges would suggest that this bold technique is not to everybody's taste. Well, shame on them! It seems to me that by using this method Sarah Waters captures one of the great enigmas of fiction, if not of life itself. We are constantly moving forward but looking backwards. As another writer of consummate narrative control once said: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.' Sarah Waters invites us to take that journey with her characters and does so with such skill and care that we find ourselves gazing both forwards and backwards at the same time.
The Night Watch takes us back through the 1940s. We follow the lives of Kay, an ambulance worker, her lover Helen, Kay's ex-lover Julia, Viv and her brother Duncan, and his friend Fraser. These people are, in many ways, quite ordinary. It is the brilliance of the writing that makes them extraordinary. They all have secrets. None of their stories is what it appears to be on the surface and all of them are connected in mysterious ways. Their stories separate and interweave and are told with enormous grace and sensitivity.
There is much to praise here, but the writing is not the only thing that marks this book as an outstanding achievement, or that explains why I admire it so much. It seems to me that Waters manages to capture something of the spirit of an elusive age. Not the Second World War and the London Blitz; this is ground well trodden. No, not that - she manages to cast a light and provide an illumination on to a time which is far more difficult to capture: the time after the war had ended.
I was born some years after the Second World War, but I was the child of a generation whose experience was indelibly coloured by what happened between 1939 and 1945. For my parents' generation the Second World War was just 'The War'. For them, time was divided into three parts: Before the War, During the War, After the War. All experiences were referenced this way and everyone was constantly looking backwards from the monotony of the present to those days.
The truth was never spoken, because it could not be spoken, but it seems to me that the message was clear, if one had survived intact then, good or bad, those were the most exciting days of one's life: the time when one felt absolutely and truly alive because death was so near and so constant. However long one had left on the planet, that feeling would not come again. Sarah Waters is the only writer I know of who manages in any way to capture the post-war descent into grey ordinariness that so affected a whole generation and, therefore, their children. She should have won every prize - just for that.