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.