The Night Watch, a novel by Sarah Waters nominated for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, has been written with an enthralling narrative gimmick. Divided into three sections, it tells the story of six characters in wartime London beginning in 1947, stepping back to 1944 and finishing in 1941. You learn where they ended up by page 150 and spend the next 300 pages finding out how they got there.
This turns the events of the story on their head in interesting ways. When one of the characters remarks during the war that "we might all be dead tomorrow," you know they won't. Their fatalism falls on deaf ears; German planes drop bombs night after night that will never find them. As a cheating husband tells his mistress "you wait until after the war ... it'll be the Ritz and the Savoy then, every time," you've already learned with certainty that it's an empty promise.
The story's constructed as a mystery in which the details of the characters' lives are the mystery, so describing them individually would ruin surprises. The six are ordinary people living in London, dealing with World War II and tied together by romance or coincidence. Four of the six are gay -- one newspaper reviewer claims Waters has the literary goal of "writing lesbians back into history" -- but the novel builds on universal romantic obstacles like jealousy, self-esteem and guilt rather than issues particular to sexual orientation.
The author Martina Cole paid £1,000 pounds in a charity auction to be a character in the book. Her money bought her E.M. Cole, a female ambulance driver protective of her cigarettes who has disreputable friends selling black market coffee, soap and lingerie.
The Night Watch is an excellent novel with some violence and biblically unsanctioned sexual content that might turn off James Dobson but not Ted Haggard. I haven't read a book with literary aims this ambitious in years, and clearly I'm missing out.