The Night Watch

So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door.

These are the opening lines of Sarah Waters’s outstanding novel The Night Watch, and they offer a clue to the entire structure of this marvelous, delicate book. In The Night Watch, the entire book is plotted backward — all clocks and wristwatches have stopped — and the plot unrolls the mysteries, not of the characters’ futures, but of their dark and interlinked pasts.

The book begins in 1947, tracing the lives of four point-of-view characters. Kay is unhappy, jobless, and nearly 37. She’s lost someone in the war — hasn’t everyone? — and she rents grubby rooms in the house of a Christian Science therapist. The rest of her time she spends strolling around London, often being mistaken for a boy: “…her shoes were men’s shoes…she put silver cuff links in her cuffs, then combed her short-brown hair, making it neat with grease…” She’s one of those women the War left behind.

In another part of London, Helen and Viv run a matchmaking service. Helen struggles with debilitating jealousy over her partner Julia, a novelist who may or may not be having an affair. Viv is hiding an affair as well, with a married serviceman, Reggie, who leaves her emotionally and sexually cold. Viv’s brother, Duncan, comes to the Christian Science therapist’s house with a sinister “Uncle Horace” with whom he lives, and it becomes clear that he spent time in prison during the War for some unrevealed but bloody crime.

Then we jump back in time, to 1944. By far the longest section of the book takes place here, during the Little Blitz, unraveling the mysteries we didn’t even know lay tangled in these ordinary people’s lives. They are in extraordinary circumstances, and it allows them to do extraordinary things: Kay is an ambulance driver; Julia breaks into abandoned houses to make sure they are safe; Viv’s passion for her lover leads her to wild, reckless behavior. Waters does give us the answers to some of our questions — who did Kay lose in the war? Why is Viv so distant with Reggie? What was Duncan’s crime? — but even the answers push us farther back into the past. Waters suggests not only that the present is meaningless without the past (something she has illustrated wonderfully with her Victorian fiction and her marvelous The Little Stranger) but that the past is in some ways more interesting than the future.

The final section of the book — just 40 pages or so — takes place in 1941. It’s with a certain amount of dread, or knowingness, or foreboding, that we see the characters, far more innocent now than we are, take the first steps in their own drama. It’s the opposite of suspense, and yet it unpackages still more information that we didn’t have. And it wouldn’t stop there, of course. Waters could have kept going, back and back, and I would never have been satisfied. As it was, as soon as I finished I turned back to the first pages, to find the hints I was sure were there, if I’d known where to look. And there they were, of course. Waters isn’t ever untidy, as gloriously rich as she is. If she leaves a loose end, it’s because life leaves them.

Can you tell that I loved this book? Waters plays with gender and sexuality, with unusual wartime opportunities and voices for women, with the silencing and imprisoning of men. She shows us love and jealousy and fear so realistically that I was breathless. Her writing is superb. It stays out of its own way, and it’s clean, but it’s also rich and beautiful and full of striking images. This is the best kind of novel — supremely excellent entertainment, and also thoughtful literature.

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40 Responses to The Night Watch

  1. Jenny says:

    Yay, I love this book too! I keep meaning to reread it, but then new shiny books come into my field of vision and I forget about The Night Watch.

  2. Deb says:

    I absolutely LOVED this book. Waters has been hit-or-miss for me–and I find this is her best book. At first I thought it was going to be a bit gimmicky, writing the story backwards, but it worked perfectly with the story she was telling: Not what is going to happen to these characters, but what HAS happened to them.

    Just one small quibble with your review: Kay’s landlord does not practice Scientology (in fact, I don’t even know if Scientology was developed until the 1950s)–he’s a spiritualist/medium and I think you get the sense that he’s a bit of a fraud too.

    • Jenny says:

      Deb, thanks for the correction — of course he is not a Scientologist — he’s not a spiritualist/medium either. He’s a Christian Scientist. There’s even a reference to Mary Baker Eddy. I misspoke and have corrected it in the review.

      I thought it was going to be gimmicky too! But I agree, it worked beautifully.

  3. Steph says:

    This sounds fantastic! I love novels that play with timelines and structure! I haven’t read any Waters, even though I know she is well loved throughout the book blogging world. I really must get on that!

    • Jenny says:

      Steph, I highly recommend it. Most people seem to like Fingersmith best, but I have really thought The Little Stranger was truly outstanding as well.

  4. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite authors and whatever the subject matter she has a constant attention to detail and her research is obviously impeccable.

    I think Fingersmith is my favourite closely followed by her latest The Little Stranger. Some TV adaptations have been great too – Affinity, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith have been made into fabulous tv dramas – dare I suggest it, a quick way of catching up on Waters!

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t seen any of the TV adaptations, but have loved all the Waters I’ve read. It’s now been years since I’ve read Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet. I should reread them.

  5. Aarti says:

    Ooh, such a great review! I have this one on my shelf to read, and I’m excited to do so! I’ve heard mixed reviews, so I’m glad yours is so positive.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I loved it, Aarti. I’m an admitted Waters fan, but it’s not as if she could do no wrong. It’s just that she doesn’t. :)

  6. Mystica says:

    Thanks for a wonderful review. I have read just one of her books and am tryingto get the others.

  7. Laura says:

    I’ve heard very mixed things about this also… it’s one of the only Waters I haven’t read. I love the sound of it though, from your review. Will have to go back to it.

  8. Teresa says:

    I’m just over 100 pages into this now, and all I want to do is read this book. I am enjoying it so much and can’t wait to see the story unfold (especially the bits about Uncle Horace; what on earth could be going on there?)

    • Jenny says:

      It’s fantastic, isn’t it? One of those books I found myself totally engrossed in. It’s rare I really can’t put something down, but this one I stayed up late to read.

  9. Study Window says:

    This is the one Sarah Waters book I haven’t tried. I have failed to finish any of the others, but this sounds as though I might actually enjoy it. Maybe I should have the courage to try just once more:)

    • Jenny says:

      Or maybe she’s just not for you! I love her writing and her characterization in all her books. This one is equally lovely, so give it a whirl, but don’t force yourself if you just don’t click with her.

  10. Kathleen says:

    I recently had my first experience with Waters when I read Fingersmith. I loved the book so much that I have held off reading some of her others for now since I don’t want to not like any of them. But I have heard other, really good things, about Night Watch and already have it on my shelves at home, ready to read! Great review.

  11. bookssnob says:

    I have an irrational dislike of Sarah Waters rooted in my general dislike for historical fiction. Somehow, however, your brilliant review has now made me desperate to read this. Most unfair of you!

  12. I keep hearing wonderful things about Sarah Waters, so I’m glad to see that you love her too.

  13. Kristen M. says:

    I just put this one into my summer reading pile in the last week. It’s one I definitely think I will enjoy! It will also be my first Sarah Waters but from everything I hear, it’s a good choice.

    • Jenny says:

      I would certainly say so. Other people love Fingersmith best, and I really loved The Little Stranger. But this is a great choice.

  14. This was the third book by Sarah Waters that I read, and it was my least favourite. I think I was just expecting every book to be like Fingersmith, which might be slightly unreasonable (!) on my part.

    Don’t get me wrong – I liked the book. I just didn’t absolutely adore it! Glad you loved it though :)

    Have you read any of her Victorian fiction? Just wondering how you think it compares to this?

    • Jenny says:

      I did love it. It was certainly more subtle than Fingersmith, but it just exploded with emotion and interest for me.

      I’ve read all her books now, I think — love them all in different ways. This one is quieter, but has so many of the same themes in a different place and time.

  15. Iris says:

    I have yet to read any book by Sarah Waters. I have a hard time deciding where to start, but I think I might give Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith a try before reading this one. It does sound good though.

    • Jenny says:

      Those are both fantastic! Get ready for a great ride. Fingersmith was my first of hers, and prepared me to be a fan!

  16. Emily says:

    Yes! This is my favorite Waters book, although The Little Stranger kind of blew my mind, too – I’ve been a fan for a good long while, but I think she keeps getting better & better. The characters in this one really spoke to me, though, as did their environment. Waters does so well with using the social milieu to explore the characters’ psyches. Glad you loved it as much as I did! :-)

    • Jenny says:

      I think my favorite part was the way she explored gender and sexuality, like in her other books, but in a more muted way — and including the men — through the extraordinary social circumstances. I thought it was just terrific.

  17. Aths says:

    Wow .. this one sounds amazing! I saw this book once long ago, and then forgot all about it! Thanks for reminding again!

  18. Bina says:

    I´ve only read this and Fingersmith by Waters, but I loved this one even more than Fingersmith! :)

    Her characterization is so good, and I loved the reverse-chronology, it worked so well in this book.

    • Jenny says:

      Actually, I think I liked this better than Fingersmith, too, but that may be because I’ve read it more recently. Either way, they’re both brilliant!

  19. chasing bawa says:

    This is my favourite of Sarah Waters’ novels. It really made me see what an accomplished and innovative writer Waters is. I’m so glad you loved it too!

    • Jenny says:

      I really did. I was already a fan, but as you say, the structure could have been gimmicky and turned out to be smooth and innovative. I loved it.

  20. kiss a cloud says:

    Jenny, I missed this review at first but saw Teresa’s because this book wasn’t really on my radar, but then I saw a copy just a few days ago on the bargains shelves at a bookshop and was hesitant as this is the novel of Waters that I hadn’t heard much about. Anyway, I bought it and am glad to have found that both you and Teresa loved it. A big “worthy” sign to me. Looking forward to reading it!

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