In what was a departure for Sarah Waters after three (extremely popular) Victorian novels, this book is set during and around the time of WWII. It tells the story of four characters – Kay; a lonely woman, tired of life and love; Viv, a young beauty who is loyal to her Soldier lover, despite her reservations; Helen, Viv’s colleague who is harbouring troubling thoughts about her relationship; and Duncan, Viv’s younger brother who has been through some troubling times.
Sarah Waters employs an unusual plot device in splitting the book into three parts which move backwards chronologically. The first part is set in 1947, when England is recovering from war, and we watch the characters moving through their lives. The second part is set in 1944, at the height of WWII, and the first part is set in 1941. (However, each individual section moves forward and tells the events of a few weeks or months in the characters’ lives.) The second and third parts start to fill in the blanks in their lives so that we discover how they came to find themselves in the situations they are in at the beginning (or the end) of the novel.
Every character – even the peripheral ones – is described wonderfully so that the reader really feels that they have come to know these people. They are decent characters, but each with their very personal and believeable flaws. 1940s London is also portrayed very vividly and beautifully, with the ravaged city almost being a fifth main character.
I have always thought that Sarah Waters is a wonderful and very talented novelist – this book serves to confirm my opinion further. I found myself anxious to know how the story turned out, and it held my attention completely. Highly recommended.