Sarah Waters – The Night Watch


Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch is the third novel I’ve read by her, and it’s as different as the previous two as it can be. While one was a gothic ghost story set in Warwickshire (The Little Stranger), the other was a Victorian thriller (Fingersmith). And then we have this: a book set (mostly in) London during and after World War II.

The book moves chronologically backwards – the opening section starts in 1947, followed by a chunk set in 1944 and finally in 1941. While nothing much happens in the opening section, it does define the state of the main protagonists, and how the years of war have led to their present situation – which isn’t exactly joyous.

Maybe it’s right after all, what the newspaper prophets say: that one gets paid back in the way one deserves. Maybe we’ve forfeited our right to happiness, by doing bad things, or by letting bad things happen.

There’s Kay, a lonely figure, who is a lesbian and spent the war years being a female ambulance driver, and playing hero. Now, she wanders the streets and goes to the cinema, sometimes just to watch half the movie.

Then we meet Duncan, a young boy who lives with his “Uncle.” During the years of war, while most men were being drafted, Duncan was in another kind of hell, which led to his relationship with his family deteriorating further. He now draws comfort from his older sister, Vivian, the only person in the family who still seems to care about him. However, Vivian is fighting her own battles – in a relationship with a married soldier – a secret she harbours closely; Duncan being the only one privy to it. She works with the fourth primary protagonist, Helen, in a matchmaking office, as they try to find the “right” person for whoever enters their office.

Helen, also a lesbian, is in a loving relationship with Julia, a famous author. Yet, her jealousy and paranoia seems go beyond the natural, and one has to wonder as to why…

1944, when the war was at its worse and “blackout” was enforced, the characters real stories come to life, and it’s not pretty. Nothing about war is pretty. Kay’s work as an ambulance driver sees her recover as many carcasses as people who can actually be helped… maybe even more. She tries to protect those younger and less impressionable, and seems to do the humane thing, as opposed to being a stickler for rules. In the end, she was my favourite character – by far.

We see a horrific botched abortion, by a dentist, and its consequences; discover the houses which are now merely rubble and stone; walk the streets of London with the characters – be it with two women starting an affair, or two other women trying to rescue as many people as they can! Not only do we discover Duncan’s past, but, we also witness the meeting of the “glamour girl” Vivian with the soldier, Reggie, in a train lavatory!

Little symbols are scattered through the book – Vivan clutching a gold ring in her hand, and then transferring it to its rightful owner; the most beautiful pair of pyjamas as a birthday present which were never worn; Duncan’s job making night lights. The significance of each of these symbols, despite being introduced in the first section, isn’t quite apparent immediately. Yet, as you read on, the jigsaw starts coming together and making more sense.

Yet, for everything I liked about this book, I didn’t actually love it. Not at all. The lesbianism was overdone, and some of the descriptions was unnecessary. There seemed to be more emphasis on the sexuality of the characters than the actual horror of war, at times. Also, to me (and I might be wrong here), the inclusion of Duncan was simply to have a male perspective as well, but his character, despite being an interesting one, didn’t really add much to the story. The authenticity of some of the intertwining stories defied logic (e.g. Reggie-Vivian), and I was left feeling quite confused about Duncan and “Uncle” Horace’s relationship.

If you’re a Sarah Waters fan, I’d suggest reading it, but, if not, I’d give it a miss. It’s nowhere near as good as Fingersmith, so like me, if you are seeking a repeat of that experience, I’d suggest heading in the other direction.

16 Responses to “Sarah Waters – The Night Watch”

  1. I haven’t read any Sarah Waters yet: guess which one I have on my shelf…?!

    To be honest I have heard other less than glowing reports of Night Watch, and had no plans to read it soon. Thanks for a helpful review, I can feel a trip to the charity shop coming on…

  2. You know I loved this book. =)

    I have to agree with you though, about Duncan. I was confused about him right until the end of the book, and still I don’t think I fully understood his character. But for all the flaws you mentioned, I kind of feel that’s what added to my own experience of it. Some parts bordered on unbelievable, but yet so detailed..

    I’m now wondering if I should be counting my lucky stars that I didn’t start my Sarah Waters experience with Fingersmith.

    • Yes, yes I do – and I think if I hadn’t read Fingersmith, I’d’ve liked it a lot more. Yeah, think you’re pretty damn lucky that you didn’t start with that…

      Duncan’s character was probably the most complex. Well, maybe second-most (Alec being the most?), but, he just didn’t fit in with the rest of the story. It felt like there was the story about the four women (including Julia here) and then his story, separate from them…

  3. It was ages ago that I read this one but I remember loving it and even though it is quite different from her other books I call it my favourite one of hers.

    • It is – but then again, so far all three of her books that I’ve read have been very different. Want to read Affinity and Tipping the Velvet now. Maybe that’ll help me appreciate this book a lot more?

  4. 7 Jo

    I’d been trying to decide between this and affinity to read next. I was swaying towards this, but I might go for affinity now. It’s the working backwards that appeals to me about this one.

    • Some people found the working backwards gammy, but I thought it worked quite well, to be honest. I’ll be looking out for your thoughts on Affinity, as it’s probably the next book by Waters I’ll be reading!

  5. I loved the Little Stranger, Fingersmith and Affinity. I recently tried again with the Night Watch but left it in the middle, the 1944 section. I’ve abandoned it for now and I’m really hoping I’ll pick it up again and end up loving it but right now I don’t know. So far none of the characters have appealed to me. Reading your review makes me want to try again though.

    • I’ve read two out of the three (exception being Affinity), and I did enjoy them. I do see what you mean about the characters – none of them get enough attention to jump out of the page and appeal to you. Considering the book’s 500+ pages, that’s a bit of a shame.

      Hopefully, if you give it another go, you’ll get on with it better? Or maybe, just find a copy of Tipping The Velvet :)

  6. I’m currently reading Tipping the Velvet and I really enjoy it! Now I can’t wait to read the rest of Sarah’s books!!

  7. I wonder whether Waters will ever match her accomplishment with Fingersmith and whether it is even fair to suppose that she will. I have read all of her novels to date and think that she does Victoriana better than other periods, albeit meticulously researched. I liked the reverse chronology and how the jigsaw pieces slotted but I didn’t engage with the characters (especially not Kay).

    Apologies, I’m catching up on some posts that I saved in my Google Reader to comment upon later.

    • Sometimes, I do regret reading Fingersmith before her other works – it just sets a foolishly high standard, which I’m not sure any book is going to match. Maybe someday…

      Think Kay was the only character I actually liked in the book – didn’t care much for the others, specially Helen.

      I’m going to be reading Affinity soon (ish), and have high hopes (here I go again) as it’s going back to the Victorian.

  8. I read Night Watch last year and absolutely loved it. I was particularly impressed with the chronological structure of the book – I wasn’t sure at first that it would work, but I felt it added to the poignancy of the characters’ tales. I’m looking forward to reading Affinity (and then maybe watch the DVD).

  9. I’m a Sarah Waters fan. I just recently decided to stop reading THE NIGHT WATCH. I decided to stop reading it four days ago, but every day since I supposedly stopped reading it, I go back and re-read (!!) It’s the character of Duncan that stayed with me the most: he was completely enigmatic in Section 1 (1947) and I was kept wondering what the deal was, since he seemed very alert to any physical contact with his friend, Fraser. So, I read the rest of the book by reading only the parts that had to do with Duncan (1944 and 1941). Then I returned and re-read the whole of Part 1 (1947) again. I know this is a crazy way to read a book. But, since re-reading Part I, I am actually beginning to think this is quite a stunning book :-) And I’m going to read or re-read the rest of it!

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