Sarah Waters is a poet of female excess who works in the medium of prose narrative. As Jean Rhys did in Wide Sargasso Sea, she updates the “madwoman in the attic” theme, conjuring vivid Victorian misfits, characters who can’t or won’t conform to the Good Woman mold. But unlike Rhys’s hapless heroine, a Creole lady adrift in the West Indies who’s sentenced to the prison of an upper-class marriage years before she’s literally locked down at home, Waters’s outsiders fall in love with their own sex. And that gives them a shot at happiness, especially when they embrace the heady, perilous freedom of working-class women without pedestals or protectors.

Waters claimed this territory almost a decade ago with the 1998 publication of her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. The book’s narrator, a wide-eyed, resilient late-Victorian baby dyke, wends her pleasurable, dangerous way through an astonishing range of social milieus. Readers are treated to details of the 19th-century Kentish oyster trade, London music-hall performance, male prostitution (the heroine cross-dresses and works as a “renter”), an upper-class lesbian dilettante’s salon, and socialist agitation.

It is a wild ride through genre conventions; the sentimental opening chapters recounting Nancy’s naive and doomed love for a fetching music-hall star give way to a take-off on Victorian pornography, as Nancy is “kept” by a wealthy dominatrix. These scenes wickedly satirize a snobbish Sapphism reminiscent of Natalie Clifford Barney’s Paris Circle. (At one point, irked at a challenge to her authority, the self-important Diana slaps her sex slave with what sounds like a copy of Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, a work often credited—or taxed—with having helped consolidate modern notions of homosexual identity.) After Nancy has enough of being bossed and patronized, she finds true love with a really nice socialist organizer. The book achieves good-natured resolution in a scene at a workers’ rally where she delivers a rousing speech attacking capitalism—not because she firmly believes in the workers’ cause, but because her theatrical training won’t let her stand idly by while the chap who wrote it muffs the delivery.

Waters, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on lesbian and gay historical fiction, apparently wanted to accommodate both untutored empathy with the sensual and emotional upheavals of her young heroine and enjoyment of the formal sleight of hand with which she renders them. But the novel’s resounding popular success astonished her. While a few lesbian-themed books had achieved commercial success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, publishing-world trends at millennium’s end might have been expected to disadvantage both her formal sophistication and her socially challenging content. But where else could you get, for the price of a paperback, a damned good adventure story, an ingenious rebuke to overly staid accounts of the history of women’s sexuality, a lesbian bildungsroman, and a clever literary pastiche?

In the event, Tipping the Velvet received a warm welcome, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was made into a BBC miniseries. It marked only the beginning of Waters’s triumphs. Her second novel, Affinity, a story of romantic delusion that wonderfully evokes the Gothic atmosphere of a London women’s prison and the raffish underbelly of spiritualist séances, won her the London Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. Her third, Fingersmith, a plot-driven Dickensian drama of hidden identities and warped expectations featuring two young women with radically different backgrounds whose fortunes are nonetheless joined, was short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize; it also earned her a place on Granta’s 2003 list of the best British writers under 40. Each of these novels displayed in abundance new and seductive variations on Tipping the Velvet’s strengths: narrative momentum (pushed to questionable extremes in the frenetic Fingersmith), imaginative and convincing period detail, artful use of the first person, and inspired mining of English literary tradition for allusions and models. And as in Tipping, the emotional stakes reduce to one simple but riveting question: will two attractive damsels surmount social constraints and inner demons to find erotic bliss together?

With The Night Watch, her fourth novel, Waters has taken a large risk: exchanging her flamboyantly imagined 19th century—its grim social contrasts and its rapturous or wrenching fairy-tale plots—for the sober social plausibility of London during and immediately after World War II. She has also widened her lens, abandoning the rhetorical elasticity of “I” and the tight focus on one or two central characters’ perspectives that governed her earlier work.

Waters narrates The Night Watch in the third person, shifting points of view frequently among four principal characters whose lives intersect during the Blitz. Kay is a tormented upper-class butch, a slightly modernized version of The Well of Loneliness’s doomed Stephen Gordon; she finds relief from her tragic sexual destiny in her job as a wartime ambulance driver, but falls apart when peace returns. Helen, a fem, feels smothered in her wifely relationship with the insistently gallant Kay; she nurses an edgier passion for Julia, a mystery writer whose architectural expertise is put to use assessing bomb damage. Vivien, a good-looking typist who happens to be heterosexual, endures the bleakness of her unhappy working-class family and awaits her next tryst with a charming soldier-lover who happens to be married. Vivien’s brother Duncan, who is gay, serves a long prison sentence in the aftermath of an aborted suicide pact proposed by his best friend Alec on the theory that their act will help stop the war.

The Night Watch is told in reverse chronological order, in sections titled “1947,” “1944,” and “1941.” This approach effectively draws the reader’s attention to the ironies of people’s efforts to manage their personal lives, but it also invites resentment when information seems withheld for the sake of a later revelation. (How likely is it that someone who’d once been buried under building rubble would venture into the streets at the start of an air raid without recalling her narrow escape?) The six-degrees-of-separation-style connections between the four characters feel plausible, if at times too vigorously massaged for thematic parallels that hint at a moral. Kay’s loan of a make-believe wedding ring to a needy stranger, Vivien, followed years later by Vivien’s return of the orphaned object, underscores both the failure of Vivien’s affair with a man who isn’t free to share his life with her and Kay’s thwarted longing for a “wife”; in each case, we’re supposed to understand, societal strictures doom people who may not really want to fit in, yet who also can’t entirely turn away from conventional notions of happiness.

As usual, Waters is a sharp observer of social stratification, especially good at depicting her working-class characters’ sensitivity to its nuances. For example, queer young Duncan’s longing for his self-assured cellmate, a conscientious objector who carelessly enjoys a king’s ransom in cultural capital, is cramped as much by his awareness of social disadvantage as by sexual shame. Meanwhile, Helen’s attraction to Julia feeds on the blatant allure of privilege: “[Helen] glanced again at Julia’s smooth, handsome, upper-class face and thought of jewels, of pearls. Wasn’t hardness a condition of glamour after all?”

The chain of attachments linking Kay, Helen, and Julia offers a welcome if too-brief glimpse of the complex ecology of lesbian eroticism, something Waters first sketched in Tipping the Velvet, where the concluding set piece brings the heroine and her new sweetheart together with several old flames. The communal dimension of women’s sexual and affectional ties—and the possibility that a lover’s romantic history might spark a new attraction—is depicted persuasively. I wasn’t convinced, however, by the revelation that Kay has feigned unrequited love for Julia to spare the latter’s pride at being rejected; it seemed too studied an illustration of Kay’s gallantry.

The denouement of Duncan’s suicide pact comes in a scorchingly well-written scene whose tension registers as far more harrowing than the predictable gore of Vivien’s abortion. The adolescent self-importance of the suicide note written by Duncan’s friend, one of the few places in The Night Watch where Waters makes use of her skill at portraying character through literary allusion, only adds to its poignancy; the boy quotes T.E. Lawrence, which seems just right for a ragingly ambivalent young pacifist queer. The novel’s closing image—the face of one of the principal characters emerging unmarred from the rubble of an air raid—works marvelously in precisely the way that so many of Waters’s best effects do: as an icon, a static picture so layered and charged with meaning that it manages to suggest dramatic development.

Given the book’s many virtues, why did I feel sporadic impatience hardening into disappointment before I was halfway through it?

The reasons are partly technical. Waters’s decision to focus on three distinct, widely spaced moments and her frequent cross-cutting between points of view mean that the story gets told through a series of snapshots, emotional “samples” from different stages of each character’s development. The reverse chronology, with its requirement to delay key information in order to surprise the reader, only reinforces this tendency to posit and illustrate but never fully explore psychological dynamics.

Further magnifying that effect, detailed accounts of the characters’ interactions often yield to flat, distancing expository treatment just when delicate intimation is needed: “Kay looked away. She’d been talking lightly all this time, putting on an act, trying to hide the fact that, as before, real emotion was rising up in her, making her embarrassed and afraid. . . . She found, to her horror, that her hands were shaking.” In passages like this, we witness emotional turning points from an alienating distance, as if watching uninspired actors who portray behavior without granting full access to the interiority that would let us care about its implications.

If the language I’ve just quoted suggests melodrama, that’s a fair description of the book’s weaker scenes. Saddled with Waters’s chosen restrictions on complex character development, the narrative depends far too heavily on stock misfortunes to sustain emotional urgency. The protagonists collectively endure anorexia, self-mutilation, panic attacks, sex that verges on battery, sex that verges on molestation, gay teen suicide, furtive adultery, out of wedlock pregnancy, life-threatening back-alley abortion, excessive drinking, and brutal imprisonment. Much of this plays out against a backdrop of nightly air raids that inevitably suggests—though it fails to illuminate—our own predicament in a world obscenely habituated to the routine bombardment of “civilian innocents.” (Waters mentioned in a recent publicity interview that she happened to do her first full day of research for the book on September 11, 2001.)

What’s the source of all this woe? Is it the war? The narration’s reverse order reinforces the natural desire to assign blame, yet Waters doesn’t give much guidance. Amid the terror and hardship of the war years, each character experiences an exhilarating sense of expanded possibilities, only to respond with daring gestures that will deplete him or her in years to come. Helen’s grasping passion for the elusive Julia, Kay’s frustrated longing for a lover she can place on a pedestal, Vivien’s resigned accommodation of an emotionally unreliable man, Duncan’s post-release domestic bondage to the prison guard he calls “Uncle Horace”—all appear to be tragedies of individual character, although character placed under terrible pressure by a combination of wartime dangers and the social constraints of peacetime. Passages in which the war is discussed directly, like one in which Julia makes the bitter claim that the conflict shows “civilization” itself to be a sham, tend to feel perfunctory, rehearsed. The Night Watch is no more a novel of public life than were Waters’s earlier books. Its politics are insistently personal.

Of course it’s not the responsibility of the historical novelist to name a winner in the contest between determinism and free will, between huge public events and private choices. But one wants to come away with some sort of convincing insight into the interactions between these forces. Instead The Night Watch gets trapped in its meticulous verisimilitude. Yes, one keeps saying: it might have been just like this—it must have felt awful to trade in the social freedoms of the perilous war years (when, as Helen remarks, “so many impossible things were becoming ordinary”) for reinstated strictures of sex and social class. Yes, lovers who lived together would take a two-bedroom flat to conceal their sleeping arrangements. Yes, it would have felt pointless to revolt—so one would have capitulated. The flamboyant self-reinvention of Waters’s Victorians seems out of the question here.

Finding all of this careful “believability” as deadening as the postwar order she depicts, I mourn the disenchantment of Waters’s fictive universe. I miss the imaginative license paradoxically bestowed by corsets and madhouses. (The paradox may be more apparent than substantive: some feminist historians have perceived vanished freedom in what one of them termed the 19th-century “female world of love and ritual,” and students of queer history have controversially proposed that same-sex eroticism may have benefited from the lack of scrutiny in an era before the invention of “the homosexual” as a human type.)

The doubles and opposite numbers that throng Waters’s first three novels—Affinity and Fingersmith in particular—are neither “believable” nor incredible; they are the offspring of fantasy and the legatees of a literary past that has habitually represented women’s experience through tropes of dangerous yet thrilling contrasts, bipolar imagery of license and constraint. Waters lets Affinity’s Margaret quote Tennyson (“For men at most differ as Heaven and Earth, / But women, worst and best, as Heaven and Hell”), then has her embrace the name “Aurora” for interactions with Selena, the imprisoned object of her passion—who is, indeed, her polar opposite within the narrative design. The author is winking at the sexism of the poem—yet how she makes it resonate! Margaret’s extremes of hectic hope and stark despair recall lines by Tennyson’s contemporary who wrote about the extravagant contradictions within a single woman’s brain: Emily Dickinson, whose famous romantic attachment to her sister-in-law may have been Waters’s inspiration for the subplot of Margaret’s frustrated yearning for her own brothers’ wife:

The soul has Bandaged moments—
When too appalled to stir—
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her—
. . .
The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours. . . .

Affinity might have been modeled on Dickinson’s great poem, for it begins with the highly literate, neurasthenic Margaret’s “bandaged moments” following a suicide attempt, traces her bomb-like dance of ecstasy as she plans her future with Selena, then turns her, disillusioned, into Dickinson’s tragic picture of a “Felon led along, / With shackles on the plumed feet, / And staples, in the Song.”

Margaret’s journal entries provide the bulk of the narrative, the remainder of which consists of briefer jottings from Selena, a medium who earned her livelihood conversing with the dead before an unfortunate incident during a “session” landed her behind bars. We witness Selena’s vulnerability and savvy, and the sexually charged groping that her clients enjoy in the darkness of the séances. What’s most affecting is the suggestion that, despite the appearance of cool resolve with which she eventually betrays Margaret, Selena is as driven and tormented as the smitten “charity visitor.”

The denouement runs into difficulties when we’re asked to believe that the force behind the supernatural fakery and romantic deception is a Svengali-like figure who hadn’t seemed important earlier in the novel. But I readily forgave this narrative lapse in exchange for the novel’s incredible visions of those Dickinsonian extremes, of Margaret caressing the bounty of Selena’s prison-amputated hair, or her horrified witness of the torture called “the darks” (known as the Hole in today’s prison parlance). At the end of the book Waters allows her lugubrious heroine to sink through the depths of morphia and laudanum to a fine suicidal frenzy. Precisely because I’m not required to find this torment “believable,” I’m free to savor its magical properties.

In published comments, Waters has suggested that The Night Watch represents the maturing of her fiction. I disagree. I believe hers is a talent meant to dance “like a Bomb,” to invoke the rich and perilous and strange in the company of writers like Jean Rhys or Angela Carter, whose feminist “Bluebeard” slyly fondles the temptations of being objectified. Or the Toni Morrison of Sula, that fable of fatal attraction between women who differ as Heaven and Hell—although in girlhood they’d experienced the ecstasy of merging, of being “two throats and one eye.” None of these authors writes “lesbian fiction,” but each of them—like Waters at her best—courts the chance to revisit and reshape the nightmares and dreams of a female imaginary.

I have a nagging suspicion that a sense of responsibility to a “broad” audience—the one behind her unexpected popular success—helps explain Waters’s move to a disenchanted narrative style, not to mention equal time for non-lesbian characters. But I think that almost any competent novelist can make us wince at the pain of a back-alley abortion, or show how charming strangers turn into insensitive boyfriends—or even prove that there were queers in World War II. Very few have cared to embroider fairy tales that contain indelible pictures of what can go disastrously wrong between two women. Very few have spent their talent on what might go deliciously right: the ecstasies of a “Bee—delirious borne—Long Dungeoned from his Rose.”

Sarah Waters has said in recent interviews that she plans to set her next novel in the 1950s, so I fear we must anticipate more staples in the song. I hope I’m wrong. I wish she’d go back where she came from.