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.