Jul 29, 2009

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The first part of The Night Watch is set in 1947, and the four main characters we meet are just getting used to life after the war. Kay, who was an ambulance driver, now roams the streets of London dressed in men’ clothes. Helen runs a match-making agency for those who find themselves alone or confused by how much their world has changed with the war. Her partner, Viv, divides her time between work, visiting her brother, and seeing her ex-soldier boyfriend, Reggie. And Viv’s brother, Duncan, who didn’t fight in the war, reconnects with an old friend from his days in prison.

That probably makes the The Night Watch sound a lot less interesting than it actually is. It’s a tough book to summarize, as there are several characters are storylines, all of which are equally complex and interesting. One of my favourite things about this novel (and believe me, it’s hard to pick) was its structure. It moves backwards in time – we go from 1947 to 1944 and 1941. This actually adds to its sadness, to its intensity. We move from the years after the war to its heart; we get to know the characters, and by the time we grow to love them we already know that things didn’t work out all that well for them. And suddenly it all begins to matter, and it breaks our hearts.

The Night Watch made me want to read more novels about women’s lives during World War II, about life in London during the blitz, about what things were like for those who couldn’t or didn’t want to fight. I’ve read quite a few books about the Second World War, but never from this perspective—which is funny, because war’s impact on ordinary lives is actually something that really interests me. Wars ruin lives is more ways than those that are usually recognized.

During the first third or so of the novel, set in 1947, we get the feeling that despite all the fear and danger and death, some of the characters actually miss the war years. This is a very human reaction, I think, though one that is seldom acknowledged. The women in particular went from being essential to being cast aside as redundant, and so they miss the clear direction their lives had back then. This is especially true of Kay. And this isn’t of course about war being necessary or anything silly like that. It’s about being or not being allowed to do things that matter to you. It's about being told you matter, and then being told you don't.

The story that affected me the most was probably Duncan’s. It’s only very near the end of The Night Watch that we find out exactly what happened to him and Alec; exactly why he was arrested. What struck me the most about that scene was how very young they sounded, how very young they were. They were boys, teenage boys, who had always being told they had to fit into a pre-made mould of manhood, or else they were worthless. I won’t tell you what happens, of course, but I will say that I had to put the book aside, I was crying so hard.

Once again, Sarah Waters shows how good she is at creating atmosphere – the bombings, the blackouts, the fear mixed with just a hint of excitement, the small and the big tragedies: it's all so perfect you feel you're there. There’s a scene with Julia and Helen out in the night during a blackout that has to be one of the most intense scenes I’ve read in a very long time.

And then there are the characters, all of whom I grew to love, and there are their feelings and relationships, which are captured so perfectly. She's a master at implying: I don’t know how she does it, but subtle emotional changes, complex feelings, unspoken things, invisible connections, they all come across so perfectly in her work. This is an intense, dark, and heartbreaking novel. Sarah Waters, I love you with all my heart.

A few of my favourite passages:
Get over it. What a funny phrase that is! As if one’s grief is a fallen house, and one has to pick one’s way over the rubble to the ground on the other side…I’ve got lost in my rubble, Mickey. I can’t seem to find my way across it. I don’t think I want to cross it, that’s the thing. The rubble has all my life in it still—’

She smoothed Helen’s hair away from her brow, watching for the stilling of her eyelids: feeling the rising of emotion in her own breast; and made almost afraid, for a moment, by the fierceness of it. For she thought of the little bits of bodies she and Cole had had to collect, tonight, from the garden on Sutherland Street, and felt the ghastliness of them, suddenly, as she had not felt it then—the awful softness of human flesh, the vulnerability of bone, the appalling slightness of necks and wrists and finger-joints…it seemed a sort of miracle to her that she should come back, from so much mayhem, to so much that was quick and warm and beautiful and unmarked.

That was all they had done; and yet it seemed to Helen that with those slight encounters the world had been subtly transformed. She felt connected to Julia now, as if by a slender, quivering thread. She could have closed her eyes and, with a fingertip, touched the exact small point on her breast at which the thread ran delicately into her heart and tugged at it.
This last one made me smile, as it’s an image she also uses in both Fingersmith and Affinity. She must like it, and I do, too. It’s such a good way of describing not only the pull of attraction, but also the sudden awareness of the other’s presence, of their every movement, that you develop when you’re falling in love.

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  1. A great book, I keep resisting buying her new one as I know I should wait till Christmas

  2. I have managed to find all four of her older books now and I really do need to read them. I don't know which one to read first. I like the way this one start at one time and moves backwards instead of forwards. I don't think I have read any books that do that before. Great review.

  3. I loved the Night Watch and especially the way it travelled back in time.

  4. I read an interview with Sarah Waters where she said that researching books is so fun for her because her background is in scholarly research; and she also said you don't have to read THAT much stuff, you just have to read enough so it sounds like you know what you're talking about. I don't know how much she does end up reading, but her books always have such amazing atmosphere. I need to reread this.

  5. I too loved the structure of this novel, the evocation of the period, and found Duncan's story and Kay herself, tragic.

    I had a lengthy discussion about Sarah Waters today with the founder of Persephone books, Nicola Beauman. The shop are a huge fan of hers and she loves the shop.

  6. I'll have to read this one. Your description reminds me of all the British children's books I've read about evacuation during the Blitz and its effects (Narnia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, etc.) It also seems like I've seen some quiet little movies about British women who were essential in some way during one of the world wars, but the only one I remember well is the most recent one about the woman who ran a burlesque show in London, and it turns out to be because of her son's death in the war.

  7. I really, really, really need to read something by Sarah Waters!!


  8. I really need to read Fingersmmith. I'm determined that'll be my first by her, and just need to get to it.

  9. The Little Stranger is on my reading list. I haven't read anything by this author, so I am curious what the book will be like.

  10. Sounds really good! I've never read anything by this author - that has to change immediately. Wonderful review as always.

  11. Dying to read this one. If you want to read more about peoples lives during war you might try Pat Barkers books (her Regeneration trilogy and Life Class). I know they're set in the first world war, not the second world war but you might still be interested.

  12. This book sounds like it has wonderful characters. You always seem to find the most interesting books!

  13. We've been in a real WWII mode lately because we've been watching Foyle's War (set during the war) and the Inspector Alleyn mysteries (set just after the war). If you want to read more about women and the war I know my wife really enjoyed this book:


    I'll have to ask her if she knows of others. She's a big WWII buff.

  14. I especially liked the structure of this one, too, but Fingersmith was even more of a page turner for me.

  15. I loved this one, too. I still can't decide if I prefer it or Fingersmith. I just reserved The Little Stranger at the library, so I hope I get a chance to compare soon!

  16. It is the structure that makes this book. That, and the detail (always, the little things). Kay really is a tragic figure. Your summary was spot on. Will have to read her new one now...

  17. I really need to read something by Sarah Waters. I've owned this one for ages. One day I will read it.

  18. I liked The Night Watch but like The Little Stranger it didnt blow me away like Affinity did (I havent read Fingersmith or Tipping The Velvet yet) and though the time period was wonderfully written I dont think I liked anyone in the novel which was hard for me. Great review.

  19. I have Fingersmith waiting on my bookshelf, but this sounds great too. Which is funny, as I have seen this book a hundred times and never had the inclination to pick it up. Must be the cover.

  20. sounds like another good one. I really need to get on the Sarah Waters bandwagon, don't I?

  21. You said after your first paragraph that you were afraid you weren't making the book sound all that interesting. You were wrong! You seriously had me sold then and there. And of course the feeling only got stronger as I kept reading your review.

  22. Another great Waters' book! I'm sure she's one of your favourite authors now, isn't it? ;)

    Must, must, must need to read her books soon!!!

  23. I have this one on my shelf, and your review makes me want to bump it up a couple of notches. I really look forward to reading it!

  24. I loved this book and just today began to read her newest. She's a talent.

  25. I really liked this book. It is the only one I have read by her so far but I have two on my TBR pile. I have to get to them soon.

  26. Hi! Because you've been so awesome & have continually commented on my blog, I have put a link to yours on my link list! Thank you for being so amazing! :)

  27. I really must get around to reading Sarah Waters!

  28. Dang. I put Tipping the Velvet on my list, but now I'm thinking THIS might be the one I want to start with! Why do you always make books sound so good??

  29. I love her books. This one I have not read, but will definitely get to it soon. Thanks for your terrific review!

  30. It wounds wonderful! I'm very curious how it moves backwards in time.

  31. I almost hate to admit this as I've enjoyed two of her books a lot but for some reason I couldn't get into this one. I really think it was just a wrong time sort of thing. I definitely plan to get back to it one of these days!

  32. It's been a long time since I've read a book that plays with time structure (well besides Catch-22 which didn't make ANY sense). I really enjoy books/movies that play with time or aren't linear in a forward movement.

    It's amazing to me that Waters has written so many books and been nominated/won so many awards and I'm just now hearing about her. Maybe I'll take Fingersmith on vacation with me and then stick this on my wishlist.

  33. I love books set in/around WWII, and this one sounds supremely interesting! Enjoyed your review and will look for this one -- I've been making an effort to read more historical fiction. I almost always love it!

  34. Now that I've read your review, I regretted not getting this book at the book sale a while ago...

  35. You know.. I consider Sarah Waters one of my favourite authors, since reading her 3 Victorian books a few years ago, but I still haven't read this one. Shame on me! Your review has really made me want to pick it up though. I have so many other books I want to read too but I'm going to have to try and fit it in sometime.

  36. Katrina: I rarely buy hardcovers, but The Little Stranger had been calling my name...

    Vivienne: All the tones I've read so far were excellent, so I'd say you could start anywhere!

    Verity: The structure really added to it, didn't it?

    Jenny: She definitely does sound like she knows what she's talking about! She mentions some books in the acknowledgements...I'm going to have to look them up.

    Claire: That's fantastic that you could to talk to her about Sarah Waters :D

    Jeanne: Narnia I have read, but not Bedknobs and Broomstick. I shall look for it!

    Lezlia: Yep :P

    Amanda: It's a great one to start with. I hope it wows you as much as it did me!

    AG: I hear it's quite different from her others, so if you're not too crazy about it, don't give up!

    Nely: Thank you! And I hope you do read her sometime - she's wonderful.

    Jodie: Definitely still interested - thank you!

    Bermudaonion: Yes, characterization is one of her strengths for sure.

    Carl: That sounds wonderful! Thank you so much :)

    JoAnn: Yes, Fingersmith was more of a pageturner, but I might have loved this as much, even if in a different way.

  37. Meghan: You know, I'm not sure if I can decide either! I loved them both, but in different ways.

    ds: It really is. I still have Tipping the Velvet to read before the new one. I don't want to read them all too quickly and then cry because there are no more :P

    Marg, I hope you enjoy it!

    savidgereads: I understand - being unable to connect with the characters can really get in the way of my enjoyment of a book.

    Mariel: Funny fact: before I knew anything at all about Sarah Waters I had some antipathy for this book because it had the same name as a Discworld novel released the same year. Little did I know :P

    Amy: You do!

    Debi: Thank you for saying so! This is one of those books that are really hard to summarize.

    Melody: She definitely is :D

    Zibilee: You have some excellent reading ahead of you. Enjoy!

    Beth: She really is. I can't wait to get my hands on her new one.

    Kailana: Yes! I think you'll also enjoy her others.

    She: Aww, thank you! It's your blog's obvious awesomeness that keeps me coming back, you know :P

    Jenclair: I can't imagine you not liking her, so yes, you must!

    Stephanie: Because they are good :P I think it's hard to go wrong with her, so start anywhere!

    wisteria: She's amazing, isn't she? I'm so glad I discovered her, even if it took me so long.

    Rebecca: I wasn't expecting it to, but the structure really adds to it.

    Trish: This one is structured really well: the three sections tell straightforward stories despite the fact that each is set years after the previous one, and the way it all ties in together is just so perfect. Can I tell you a secret? Before reading Fingersmith, I didn't expect to like Sarah Waters all that much. I have NO idea why, but I expected a good plot but not so great writing. I actually had no idea she'd been shortlisted for the Booker, Orange, etc. Goes to show how clueless I was :P

    Meg: Then I think you'll love this for sure! Happy reading :D

    Alice: Aww, that's too bad. But maybe you'll find it again some other time!

    tanabata: This on is different from the Victorian ones, but still very Sarah Waters. She quickly became one of my favourites too!

  38. wow, sounds fantastic- like just the sort of thing i should be reading!

  39. Sounds like another to consider for the WWII challenge. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'll add your review. :)

    Diary of an Eccentric

  40. I really like the sound of this and some of the other books by Waters you have reviewed. I hope to give them a go soon. It's been a while since a book made me have a good cry!

  41. I don't think I've ever read any books set after the war but I have seen a few movies where the characters are trying to put their lives back together. Unfotunately, quite a few don't quite succeed :(. This sounds like a really good story but also really sad.

  42. Great review! I haven't read Sarah Waters yet, but I have one book of her's on my TBR pile. I love the excerpts you posted.

  43. Thanks for the wonderful review Nymeth. My bookstore has a few of this title in hardback on the remains table for about $6.00 (so cheap!) and I didn't pick it up. I think I will go back and get it now!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.