The Night Watch

It’s 1947, and London is recovering from World War II. The men and women who lived through the war are haunted, but by what? That’s the question that we as readers have as Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch opens. Waters fills this novel with a variety of characters, each of whom has his or her own struggles. And as the novel unfolds, we’re carried back in time, with one section taking place in 1944, and the final section taking place in 1941. We only gradually learn how these marvelously drawn characters arrived at their present state, and as we learn, we find that our impressions were not always correct, that these people’s stories are not always what they appear.

Jenny reviewed this book just last week, so go take a look at her review to get the details about the plot, characters, and structure of the book. I’m just going to briefly share some of my impressions here.

This was the third of Sarah Waters’s books that I’ve read (the others being The Little Stranger and Fingersmith), and I continue to be thoroughly impressed with her work. She has all the things I look for: complex, well-constructed plots; well-developed characters; thought-provoking ideas. As far as I’m concerned, Sarah Waters is the complete package. I’m thrilled to have finally found her!

The Night Watch does feel like a departure from her other books that I’ve read. Both The Little Stranger and Fingersmith are more firmly in the tradition of the sensation novel. There are ghosts and robbers and shocking twists! The Night Watch, on the other hand, is more realistic. Much of the drama is ordinary human drama of jealousy, betrayal, desire. The rest arises from the extraordinary historical events that surrounded these characters.

And the history itself is fascinating. My own education about World War II focused on the Holocaust and on the U.S.’s role in the War. It wasn’t until I visited London for the first time that I realized just what a horror the War was in England. This book takes readers right into the violence. The descriptions of bombed out houses, mutilated corpses, and badly injured bodies were shocking. Kay’s work as an ambulance driver takes her into some of the worst of it, and the things she sees cannot fail to horrify.

Equally impressive was the attention to detail given to the human drama. Waters writes her characters with such compassion and understanding. Even when they act in maddening ways, I understood them—I felt right along with them. She also allows some desires to remain a mystery. One character in particular, Duncan, stood out for me in this respect. Through much of the book, it seems like his situation is clear, but as his history is revealed, there are surprises around every turn. At the end, his story is almost more of a mystery than it was in the beginning.

Of course, one of the most notable features of The Night Watch is its backward construction. I’ve read a lot of books in which the end is at the beginning, and I tend to really appreciate that technique. How did they get here? is for some reason a much more fascinating question for me than What’s going to happen? Waters’s backwards style works wonderfully for subverting our impressions and letting us see how limited our understandings of the characters are.

For more of my and Jenny’s thoughts on The Night Watch, check out the archived recording of our chat with Nicole on That’s How I Blog.

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24 Responses to The Night Watch

  1. The historical setting (I love reading about the WWII period on the home-front) and the backward construction were the things I loved most about this novel; Kay irritated me but I think I’d have more sympathy for her rereading. This does stand apart from Waters’ other novels but I prefer it to The Little Stranger and appreciate it more with hindsight and reminders like this one.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, I liked Kay from the start, but I understand what you mean. She does sort of come across as more pathetic than likable, but as I learned more about her my sympathy for her turned into admiration.

  2. chasing bawa says:

    The Night Watch it my favourite Sarah Waters’ novel. She’s a truly amazing writer and I thought the backward construction was a revelation!

  3. Jenny says:

    I liked the backward construction too: it’s validating to me when the authors feel okay about telling you the end. I want to write them a letter and tell them they should always tell me the end! :p

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Although unlike you I don’t intentionally read the ending before the middle, I do agree that knowing the outcome doesn’t have to ruin the story. You just end up asking different questions.

      And another World War II book I just read, Small Island, starts near the end.

  4. Jenny says:

    P.S. Hey! Y’all mentioned me in your podcast! *turns pink* Hi! :p

  5. kiss a cloud says:

    Yay, I’m so glad to hear good things about this. I just purchased a copy, which I found on the bargain shelves at the bookstore. It’s the one I’ve heard the least about so wasn’t sure, but you assured me. The backward construction is so interesting and probably the thing I look forward to the most.

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. It hasn’t gotten as much love as some of Waters’s other books, but it’s every bit as good as the other two I’ve read.

  6. Deb says:

    I’ve already posted about how much I liked this book–Sarah Waters doesn’t always do it for me: I tend to like the first halves of her books (THE LITTLE STRANGER, FINGERSMITH) and then feel that she runs out of steam in the second half and can’t decide how to finally resolve matters. This book kept my interest from first to last and I thought the backward construction worked very well.

    One comment about WWII in London. I was born and raised in the England of the 1960s and even then there were huge parts of the country that had not been rebuilt yet. My parents were both “children of the Blitz,” who were forcibly evacuated to the countryside from London in the 1940s. My grandmother always said the hardest thing she ever did was take her children to the train station not knowing where they’d end up or if/when she’d see them again.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, That’s fascinating about your parents, and it must have been heart-wrenching. In the U.S., we’re really lucky to not have fought an ongoing war on our own shores for more than a century, so it’s easy for us to be blind to the horror of a constant onslaught of violence like that.

      I was really struck when I went to London how you could see which neighborhoods have been bombed most heavily and that you could actually see scars from bombings on some of the buildings. It really brought the horror of the war home to me.

  7. Emily says:

    I already commented on Jenny’s entry but can’t resist adding my love of this novel to yours as well – it makes me so happy when other people like it too! :-) I love the more realistic focus here, and thought the relationships were portrayed so poignantly (and with such tension!).

  8. Kathleen says:

    After reading and loving Fingersmith, I didn’t hesitate to add this to my list to read in the future after Jenny’s review.

  9. softdrink says:

    Like Claire, I prefer this one to The Little Stranger. (I didn’t like the whole thing with the house). Waters is just brilliant with setting and evoking a sense of place and time.

  10. litlove says:

    You and Jenny have inspired me to read this – and I’m loving it! She is such an accomplished stylist.

  11. Aths says:

    This one has been on my TBR since I read a raving review once last year. I’m glad you think it is fascinating, I will have to bump it up!

  12. You know, it’s interesting, I just finished re-reading the Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (pretty much the original popular lesbian novel), and it also had the protagonist as a lesbian ambulance driver. I wonder if that was intentional… They seem to imply that there really were a lot of lesbian ambulance drivers at the time, which just seems so random. Anyway, great review of my favourite author.

  13. Pingback: Review Round Up « The Lesbrary

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