I’m starting to wonder if I’m unconsciously drawn to fiction with an inordinate quantity of gay characters.
For a while after starting The Night Watch, it seemed I’d slipped unwittingly into another Alan Hollinghurst novel in which you can’t turn a page without meeting four more gay people. I’ve felt guilty about my Hollinghurst post ever since a conversation with a much more literary colleague who informed me that Hollinghurst was consciously writing “Queer Fiction”, aiming to compensate the historical absence of gay characters by producing novels full of them. Which is more laudable than I gave him credit for. However, the end result is the same – unbalanced fiction when taken individually, even if it serves a role in the wider canon. Fiction written for a political cause will surely always have a palpable chip on its shoulder which disrupts its supposedly complete world.
However, perhaps due to my greater understanding of Queer Fiction these days, I plugged on – and was rewarded.
The Night Watch is set in the years during and immediately after WW2, and moves backwards through time with three main sections – a device I rarely favour. But the journey came out in a delicate, nuanced, intriguing place which has left me thinking more than many a recent read. By moving backwards in time towards and into the war as the book progresses, there is a fascinating sense of the origins of things. No doubt by design, what starts as a fairly conventional girls-in-the-war novel ends up exploring a much more interesting and universal human agenda. What small and unexpected elements of life shape us and make us who we are?
By revealing much but to the end not all of the stories of the characters we build up a complex and real picture of them; they are liked friends we know closely but simultaneously not at all. You’re filled with a powerful sense of their lives stretching backwards into the past and forward into the future even when you close the cover for the last time. Looking up, you’re forced to consider the reality of the real lives around you, including your own, with a sensitivity to the influences and relationships that every second shape you and make you who you are.
It’s a fragile nebulous sense, but a valuable one – making you sit up, notice, appreciate, feel. How The Night Watch ends so delicately after a seemingly clumsy start is an intriguing development – which is exactly what we see in each of the closely observed characters. Impressive.