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In a London under siege, passion, courage, and shame

The Night Watch
By Sarah Waters
Riverhead, 450 pp., $25.95

A great writer, a really great writer, can take readers to places they don't particularly want to go and make them glad they took the trouble.

There can be few phrases on the jacket of a novel that will make me less inclined to pick up, buy, and read it than ''a novel of relationships." It doesn't even promise that they are twisted relationships, or failing or unusual relationships, just relationships. In my extensive experience of disappointing reads, this usually denotes upper-middle-class characters floating around in lovely prose, topped with the dazzling insight that it's all rather difficult. Dull books happen when a writer has a strong sense of entitlement to readers' attention. Sarah Waters, however, is a writer of such talent and humility that although ''The Night Watch" is a book about relationships, she captivates, teases, and buffets the reader to the very last page.

''The Night Watch" is a brave book.

Waters's past three novels have garnered her an enthusiastic and loyal fan base and a host of literary prize nominations, as well as some notoriety: the BBC version of ''Tipping the Velvet" was a cheering romp through the Victorian lesbian underground.

''The Night Watch" breaks from the British belle epoque setting she is known for and tells a story set in London during World War II and its aftermath. This must have been a daunting choice to make; readers who expected exactly the same delicious meal again tend to be vocal in their disappointment. Waters, however, carries the shift with grace and style. ''The Night Watch" is as compelling as it is beautiful, and hard-core fans will enjoy the many thematic returns from her previous novels -- prison and failed suicides, sexual desire, and the pall of shame over secretive lesbian relationships.

Written in three sections, the book works backward through 1947, 1944, and 1941, tracing the lives of a series of loosely related characters. Kay is an isolated and independently wealthy woman who, dressed mannishly, passes her days at the cinema or walking aimlessly around London, trying to chat up women. Duncan lives with a man he met in prison, his adoptive ''Uncle Hector," and works in a candle factory, thinking he deserves nothing better because of his class and his past. Viv, his aspiring sister, takes elocution lessons to help her pass for middle class so she can get a typing job in the Ministry. She sneaks off to spend unhappy times with her married lover, Reg, while Helen, her co-worker in a lonely hearts club, wrestles with jealous rage over her girlfriend Julia. The unexpected complexity of Helen and Julia's love affair uncovers a desire to be the lover rather than the loved one.

Delightfully, there are no labored moments of serendipity or realizations that they are all part of a thin web, just believable happenstance as the characters cross paths in London's dusty, war-ravaged streets.

Waters has a clear and delicious sense of form. Having won the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain's Historical Dagger for 2001's ''Fingersmith," here, again, she shows that she is master of the mystery. There is no dead body in the library, but she uses the mystery form in working backward through the narrative curves and creates great suspense as she gradually unveils the characters' inner lives, making sense of their motives and the facts that bind them together.

The setting is not only central to the story but forms the twists and turns of the story, involving backstreet abortions, conscientious objectors, and the visceral drama of life during the Blitz. The characters become weary as the war drags on, and get lost in the directionlessness many felt in peacetime. The moral backlash women experience after the war means that a female ambulance driver and paramedic, Mickey, has to take a job in a petrol station because it's one of the few jobs where a woman can wear trousers.

Confusion and a yearning for a past that made sense are personified by Duncan and Kay, both of whom are paralyzed by their histories. Mr. Leonard, the Christian Scientist who helps the sick see that their afflictions are nothing but delusions, tells Kay that she is ''searching with your eyes cast down, seeing nothing but dust." Duncan collects worthless antiques, which he displays in his boyish bedroom, on a shelf especially set up for the purpose by Uncle Hector.

Waters's attention to detail is wonderful. She avoids the well-trodden facts of life during wartime, like sudden death and stocking-seam obsessions, and instead brings the era to life through observations like the lack of street signs, the sheer dustiness of London during the blitz, and through the pitch-perfect '40s dialogue and its references to the ''queerness" of everything. London is pitted with bombed sites, streets disappear in the course of one night's blasts, and the crumbling city under fire, where everything is torn and mended, echoes the atmosphere of George Orwell's ''1984."

A couple of narrative strands didn't quite work for me: the cause of Duncan's imprisonment and the history of Viv's gold wedding band both had me flicking back through the pages to try to piece the story together. Finally I decided that I'd better reread the book immediately and I thrilled at the thought; it's that good.

Denise Mina is the author of ''Field of Blood" and ''Hellblazer."

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