This novel tells the story of four young people struggling to live normal lives in the wake of the Second World War. It is narrated backwards, beginning in 1947, retrospectively showing us how their lives fit together. Through the characters’ experiences in 1947, then 1944, and finally 1941, we are able to see the influences that previous events had on them.
It is a poignant story, which reinforces the momentous effect that the war had on everyone, particularly young people. Already struggling to find their place in the world, they were faced with decisions that we can’t comprehend. Even in the aftermath of the war, in 1947, the key characters are still living in the mindset of war and trying to get on with their lives.
Sarah Waters focusses on the constraints of society and the expectations imposed on ordinary people. There was a kind of patriotic frenzy abounding in London at the time, where people seemed to have to fit into certain categories or else they were deemed suspicious. The relationship between two women, Helen and Julia, particularly illustrates the repression that was forced upon people who didn’t fit the mold. They lived together as partners and lovers, yet had to maintain the pretence of being friends and having separate rooms in order to hide it from their parents, friends and colleagues. Similarly, we are told the moving story of Duncan who lives a normal life after being imprisoned during the war. His story unfolds in the course of the novel and another tale of a secretive and tragic relationship emerges.
The story is pieced together and the links between the four characters become clear as the book moves backwards through time. We see how the characters continue to be affected by the tragedy of war, and that they may never overcome it. Readers learn a lot about the social history of Britain at the time – the struggles, the issues, and the catastrophic effect it had on everyone. The characters’ internal struggles are mirrored by the bombed and bleak remains of parts of London, desolate and often unforgiving.
This is a poignant and cleverly crafted book, ultimately successful as it weaves the emotions of characters into the events that they are experiencing. Consequently it serves as a compelling view of history. It is a perceptive novel, and well worth the read.
Penguin Books, $35.00