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There is No Pain

Chaotic love in war-torn London

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With Isaac Hayes' recent departure from South Park over a shocking (shocking!) satire of Scientology, I feel I must begin with Mr. Leonard, who, though only a minor character in Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, is a faith healer from Scientology's faith-healing older uncle, Christian Science. OK, actually he doesn't so much heal his patients as whisper at them for an hour that there is, in fact, no pain. This though the year is 1947 in London, in the aftermath of World War II. This though all the book's attenuated souls are suffering, quietly but clearly.

"I've got lost in my rubble," says Kay, who carried stretchers during the war and walks the streets in men's clothes. "The rubble has all my life in it." Duncan, a painfully shy man with a terrible secret, collects broken trinkets: a copper pitcher, a clay pipe, his former prison guard. He longs for the attention of Fraser, a conscientious objector and his former cell mate, but Fraser is falling for Duncan's sister, Viv. Viv has been years waiting for her lover to leave his wife. Meanwhile, Helen, who works with Viv in a matchmaking agency, fears her glamorous lover Julia is falling for another.

They are survivors all, broken but alive, and having seen so much death they don't know what to do with whatever happiness comes their way. Each feels a love that is forbidden. "Maybe we've all forfeited our right to happiness," reflects Helen, "by doing bad things, or by letting bad things happen." And while enjoying a picnic with Julia: "Was it a kind of idiocy or selfishness, to want to be able to give yourself over to trifles? ... Oughtn't you, precisely, to preserve them? To make little crystal drops of them, that you could keep, like charms on a bracelet, to tell against danger when next it came?"

Though The Night Watch has its share of grand tragedies, Waters lets them recede to the background of this masterful novel, which works its way backward by steps through the war to 1941. The worst hurts are all particular and personal: sad, sweet survivors who don't know what to do with their happiness or their pain, suffering in silence before the backdrop of an apocalypse that scales even their worst wounds to insignificance, whispering to them over and over that their pain is no pain.

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