Pan Macmillan, 18 February 2021
Available as: HB, 256pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy via NetGalley, purchased audio and HB
I mainly listened to this book as an audio, finishing the hardback as I got close to the end and needed to see how it all turned out.
Nightshift attracted me because it promised a story of nighttime, of dark streets, of people at work in the silent hours while the world sleeps (a slight obsession of mine). In fact that isn't quite its focus, but nevertheless, it made a complex and satisfying story, still one with something of the dark about it - albeit spiritual rather than literal.
Meggie, a young woman from South Africa, is living and working in London around the turn of the Millennium. Holding down a boring office job while she attempts to complete her English degree, she meets and falls under the spell of the exotic Sabine - and her life becomes an adventure.
Twenty years later, suffering from insomnia as she recalls those events, and after discovering new and unsettling facts about Sabine, Meggie decides to set everything out in a book, to try to work through it - to understand what was really happening.
It's a story of intoxication, of abandon - familiar in some respects. Meggie sees herself as ordinary and Sabine, unconventional, mysterious, cool, Belgian (a nice touch - maybe it would have been too much of a cliche if Sabine were French) becomes an obsession. Meggie's in her restless years, coming to terms with having left home, in a rather pedestrian relationship with Graham and waiting for her future to happen.
The two young women begin by having lunch together, not-quite going out but with something between them. There's a will they, won't they to the whole relationship, Sabine holding herself slightly elusive, coming and going and eventually, eventually making herself even less available by switching to the night shift. Meggie has a boyfriend, but her preoccupation with Sabine makes her wonder if she might be gay or bi, setting her off on a path of exploration before she finally concludes that no, she's neither. This is typical of the relationship - Meggie not so much doing things with Sabine but bouncing off her, considering new and different ways of being, perhaps projecting on Sabine more than really understanding her.
Still, Meggie doesn't hesitate to follow Sabine to the night shift - although in predictable fashion it isn't straightforward to actually find Sabine. Nevertheless, Meggie does meet a gallery of eccentrics and free spirits who work three weeks on, three off, spending their work hours compiling press clippings in a seedy warehouse next to London Bridge. (If you worked in London in the late 90s, the book captures the atmosphere perfectly - the peak Blair years, just ahead of the city assuming its easy glamour in the Noughties). There are heroic sessions of drinking and drug taking, lots of clubbing, philosophical conversations on the roof at end of shift, shared cigarettes, episodes of poverty, break-ups and always, always Sabine.
Sabine is a thumpingly interesting character but to be honest, at times, can be a bit annoying. She is - or at least as seen through Meggie's eyes she is - an embodiment of the idea that what matters in life is to live, to the full, for the moment, feel strongly, go places, experience things. An approach to the world that scares me, frankly, and in all the encounters between Sabine and Meggie there's a slight sense of danger, of being on the edge of something - sometimes closer, as when they go to the opera with Sabine's lover (or is he?) and someone suggests a threesome, or when, off their heads with coke in a car going to Brighton, the two women are stopped by the police.
It's a mark of how good Ladner's writing is that the reader connects with all the possibilities here, with the richness of them while at the same time, the reader understands just how much Meggie is... what word should I use? Bewitched? - by Sabine, and why she is (though it's hard to put into words, you just need to read the book).
Meggie is bewitched enough to drop Graham, to start trying to be like Sabine, to act like her (though plagued by doubt over whether she's getting it right), to dress like her. Meggie's obsession with Sabine gets in the way of any clear perception by her of what Sabine might really be like - of the risks of being close to her, yes, but also of what Sabine's own needs might be. Meggie both takes Sabine too seriously, revelling in the details of her life (her brother's tragic death, the missing father, the glamorous older lover) and fails to take her seriously enough, being quite, quite heedless of mundane details that might - in hindsight - matter a lot.
So the dance whirls on, the two women existing in the same spaces with each other but really, I suspected, living out two quite different stories of what is happening.
Until a final, awful event which changes everything. A shocking event, which Ladner does not try to explain. Is it a betrayal of one by the other? Is it a reckless attempt by one to demand attention, rescue? Or both?
It's something that leaves Meggie wondering about everything she had known, believed, assumed, about Sabine - and still wondering years later.
A complex, atmospheric read, capturing so well a certain sort of relationship and its aftermath.