It's 1947, and lives are reaching out for normality after the dislocation of war. For some this is difficult, unable to replicate the adrenaline rush of falling bombs and saving lives. For others, the relationships which made sense in the unnatural intensity of the war years no longer provide security and satisfaction.
Sarah Waters' novel follows the interlinked lives of five people in these dismal years. Helen and Viv work in a dating agency. Helen lives with the sophisticated Julia, whilst Viv has been having a long-term affair with Reggie. Viv's brother Duncan works in a factory and lives with Mr Mundy, but is hiding a secret in his past. Kay lives alone and walks the streets without purpose. But why does Viv become so animated when she sees Kay walking in the street?
Structurally, this book is a bit like a classic detective novel. You are introduced to the story in the middle at the scene of crime, and the action unravels both forwards towards dénouement and backwards as the criminal and their motivations are revealed. In 1947, you learn about the characters, but subsequent sections are set in 1944 and 1941 and as we rewind backwards we find out why the characters are who they are and act how they act.
Sarah Waters is adept at creating a sense of time and place, and her picture of wartime London is highly evocative. The ebbing and flowing of relationships is sketched out with care and sensitivity. Yet there is something at the heart of this novel which didn't fully work for me. It's as if it were somehow not a true story of a series of relationships, but a technical exercise in showing how a book about relationships could be written in reverse chronology.
Perhaps that's unfair, perhaps one is just too conditioned to the unflowering of the plot, of the novelist's relentless drive towards a conclusion. Certainly, there are many novels where one has appreciated the storyline but the ending leaves one disappointed, and by this device of reverse chronology Sarah Waters has avoided having to finish with her characters facing the humdrum normality of peacetime at the end of the book. But because of the structure of the book, we know who survived the falling bombs, the back-street abortions, and the slow reveal of why Helen has silk pyjamas and Viv wants to give Kay a ring does not provide an adequate motive force for the book as a whole - which is unfortunate, as many sections are compelling and the period and interrelationships are delineated with such care.