Review: The Night Watch

I loved Sarah Waters´ Fingersmith and knew it wasn´t going to be the only book I´d read of her. When there was actually a book of hers in the library left (they are always checked out!), I immediately picked it up.

The Night Watch takes place in London during WWII and follows the intersecting lives of three women and one man. There is Kay who drove an ambulance during the war and now wears mannish clothes, and Helen who tries to keep her love life a secret, Viv is the glamour girl, and her brother, sensitive Duncan also has a past.

The great thing about this novel is the structure. We meet the characters in 1947 when they have been shaped by or during the war. We meet Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan again, in 1944 when they live in a world of blackouts, air raids and shelters, and for the last time in 1941 after the blitz. The beginning of the book is also the end of the story.

In the opening part of The Night Watch, the characters find themselves at the end of a journey, exhausted, and not quite sure how they got to be there. Kay wanders the streets restlessly, and cannot find her place after the war, a world that is taking all the freedom women had during the war away again. Needy and insecure Helen is terrified that her lover might be leaving her, Viv cannot seem to let go of her married lover from the war, and Duncan is hiding away from the world, living with old Mr. Mundy.

Over the course of the novel, Waters, in reverse chronology, tells the past of these four characters, explaining how they came to be the tired, restless people we meet in 1947. She does this by filling in the blanks with each character episode in 1944 and 1941, letting us be there when they are at their happiest but also when they make unbelievably stupid decisions. Although there is no major twist in The Night Watch, I´m not going to give more of the story away.

Waters brings the 1940s to life until we can taste the dust from the bombings, hear the alarm bells, but also see the curled hair, red lipstick, the constant cigarette smoke, and the intimacy and secret affairs. A quote on the cover of the edition I read describes Sarah Waters as “one of the best storytellers alive today”, and that is exactly what I admire most about her. She spins fascinating, vivid stories and does so with beautiful prose and an eye for structure.

The Night Watch is a sad book but a worthwhile read. While I enjoyed Fingersmith´s Victorian setting, I was happy to find that this book takes place in wartime London. It is a fascinating time, teaching us about the horror of war, of people adapting to such a life, and also about the possibilities this time had to offer to women.

Some passages I really liked:

Her day was a blank, like all of her days. She might have been inventing the ground she walked on, laboriously, with every step. ” (6)

Julia opened her eyes and gazed briefly at Helen´s thighs. `You look like a girl in a painting by Ingres, ´ she said comfortably. She was full of ambiguous compliments like this.” (44)

They were lifting drinks and cigarettes, looking at him now with the empty yet bullying expressions of people who have settled down for a night at the cinema. . .” (89)

The drone of aeroplanes was still heavy, the thumping of the guns still loud, but the sound of the engine was loud, too, and she coulnd´t tell if she was driving into the worst of the action or leaving it behind.” (187)

The yawn became a low sort of of yodeling groan, and when that was finished he put his cigarette between his lips and rubbed his face – rubbed it in that vigorous, unself-conscious way in which men always handled their own faces, and girls never did.” (435)

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Night Watch

  1. Nice review! Interesting to read about the narrative technique used in the book – describing how characters are at a later period and then going back and making the reader find out how they reached there! Must have been fascinating reading it. I just checked Wikipedia and discovered that Sarah Waters’ last three books have been nominated for the Booker prize! That must be something!

      1. Thanks for the recommendation! Will add it to my ‘TBR’ list. Probably Sarah Waters will get fourth-time lucky on the Booker prize front, with her next book 🙂

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