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A Rattling Good Yarn
on 19 August 2012
I wasn't entirely sure what genre this novel was meant to be in: serious historical fiction (as the excellent period detail, the literary references including the splendid Pope quote that forms the title and the seriousness of some of the World War I scenes would imply), romance (as most of the four heroines' relationships would imply) or (as some of the sex scenes implied) romance with a soft-porn edge. Whatever it is, it was certainly a good read in many ways. 'Night shall Overtake Us' is the story of four girls who meet at boarding school in the early years of the 20th century, and form a vow of eternal friendship. After school, their lives go in very different directions. Red-haired Irish Rory, who has grown up fostered by a noble Irish family after the death of her mother, reared with three 'foster brothers' moves to London, becomes a leading figure in women's suffrage, and also a bright star in London's Bohemia, after her artist foster brother Tertius and his brother Fingal, the partner of a gallery owner specializing in modern art, introduce her to this world. She also begins an affair with a working class socialist, to the fury of her oldest fosterbrother Lucius (always called, annoyingly, Muttonhead), who has loved her from childhood, as indeed has Tertius. Jenny, the most sensible and academic of the four friends, and the poorest, goes to work as a governess, but soon sees the possibility for a change in her fortunes when she captivates a wealthy laird, Alistair. But can she make her liking for him turn to love? Eleanor, the plainest and most intense of the friends, falls for Wicked Lord Laurence (Lorenzo) Hastings, despite his warnings that he will never make her happy; an accident means that she decides to devote her whole life to this masochistic passion. And Francesca, the sweetest and most gentle of the four, appears to find perfect happiness with her sweetheart Stevie Carr-Lyon - but are they really so happy, and what are the demons from the past tormenting Francesca? With the advent of World War I the friends' lives change dramatically. Rory and Jenny become nurses and discover the satisfaction of work and independence, while Eleanor and Francesca remain in London fretting over Lorenzo and Stevie at the Front. As the War progresses and the death toll mounts, the women's lives undergo more changes, including a terrible betrayal by one of the four of the vow of eternal friendship and loyalty...
Saunders is a superb storyteller and has done her historical research extremely well. One gets a vivid sense of English life both pre-World War I, and during the terrible First World War. Many of her characters were very appealing (though I felt calling a hero 'Muttonhead' was a serious blunder, and couldn't quite see the point of Francesca, who played a relatively minor role and always seemed to be either about to faint or in tears, until the final section; many of the older ladies, like Mrs Braddon or the vampish Monica Temple were also depicted in a wildly over the top way). And Saunders has a very good knack with plot, making one desperate to read on and find out what happens to the characters, particularly in my case Rory, Jenny, Alistair, Lorenzo and the artist Tertius. However, I would stop at three stars in reviewing the book (despite enjoying some aspects of it a lot) because I found a lot of the writing quite melodramatic, particularly some of the dialogue, and because I thought the endless sex scenes, recounted in Rabelasian or even Sadeian detail, and full of moaning and roaring, wildly over the top, and actually not on the whole that erotic (the one involving Muttonhead should certainly be nominated for the Guardian Bad Sex Writing Award). I felt that though Saunders had a lot of good ideas, her desire to write a 'bestselling romantic novel' led ultimately to a rather unconvincing style and at times some downright silliness. Rory, for example, seemed to fall in love with every man she encountered with equal passion and extravagance. And if Jenny was both so sensible, and so loving, would she really have felt (quite early in the novel) that in getting engaged to Alistair she'd ruined her life? Wouldn't she rather have made a real effort to try to love him? I also felt that Lorenzo's wickedness should have been more explained - we never found out quite enough about WHY he got so savage, and his traumatic childhood -and was uncertain whether or not we were meant to regard Eleanor as brave or merely masochistic.
A really good light read, and full of interest, but I was left, rather as I was with 'Wild Young Bohemians', feeling that if Saunders had taken more time and thought more about her characters and their interaction it could have been a much better book. Four stars for content, but probably only about two for style.