Picks and Pans Review: Night Shall Overtake Us

updated 07/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Kate Saunders

In 1907, on the eve of Aurora Carlington's dismissal from an English private school, she and three other girls swear a bond of eternal friendship that is tested repeatedly and finally broken in this meticulously observed period novel by one of Britain's most talented young writers. Saunders strings a tightly narrated story between a series of letters written by Aurora to her daughter ("There we are, the four of us, faded to sepia in the photograph.... Caught for all lime in clothes that have gone through fashionable and grotesque, and now merely seem quaint.") The novel also chronicles the plights of its heroines: Aurora, a politically headstrong Irish girl; Jenny, sedate and practical; Francesca, beautiful and naive; and the high-spirited, intellectual Eleanor.

Saunders exhibits a formidable knowledge of England's history and culture—the manners of its social classes, the rise of the suffragettes and the advent of socialism, all of which are overshadowed by the events leading up to World War I. The war is described with great vivacity, particularly the scenes that dramatize Aurora's stint as a battlefield nurse. Contrasting the tableaux of combat are tender, at times bawdy vignettes of these women's first forays into love and sex. Supple writing and infusions of wit and sarcasm burnish this 501-page novel with the sheen of a literary triumph. (Dutton, $22.95)

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