This is the second Sarah Waters book I have read. The first book of hers I picked up is The Little Stranger, which I read a couple of years back for Halloween.
So, I went into reading The Night Watch expecting something in the style of The Little Stranger, writing wise, but it’s completely different. Later on, I read Fingersmith (review yet to come), and that’s completely different as well.
It’s pretty rare to find an author whose writing style varies so much from book to book.
This is the story of four Londoners – three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching. Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret. Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover. Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances…
~ Synopsis from goodreads
The Night Watch was an unusual read in part because it takes you in reverse order through time. The part of the book is set in 1947, the second in 1944, and the third in 1941. So, we start the book learning where the characters end up, but read on to find out their journey backwards to learn how they got there.
When the book starts, Kay (who in my mind is the main character in the book) is moping and depressed. She spends all her time walking the streets of London, viewing movies in cinema halls, and is overall lonely and unsettled in life.
Duncan another character in the book speculates on seeing her:
Perhaps she was a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF, something like that: one of those women, in other words, who’d charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over.
Turns out he is pretty close.
During the war Kay drove an ambulance rescuing people who were trapped under buildings bombed by the Germans. One such rescuee is Helen. In 1947, she is in a seemingly unhappy relationship with Julia – a writer. Helen is madly and maybe rightly so jealous of Julia’s friendship with her publisher.
Helen’s glamorous colleague Viv is described as someone with a layer of grief, just below the surface. And Viv’s brother is Duncan – who seems the most mysterious of them all. At the beginning of the book, we learn that he has spent time in prison, but he doesn’t really seem like the criminal type, living a meek life with a mysterious “uncle”.
After describing each of the characters’ mental state in detail, Waters then drops us into 1945, and then 1941 letting us learn how they got this way.
I both liked and disliked this reverse chronology. It worked for me because it was so very unusual, the feeling of just being dropped into these people’s lives, without knowing anything about them was very nice. However, the ending that starts very abruptly in the beginning (I know I am not explaining this very well) just didn’t work for me. I ended the book wanting to know more about what happens to these characters. I think a little epilogue might actually have done the trick for me.
In writing style, this book felt very Virginia-Woolfish to me. It takes the reader deep into the character’s thoughts, and feelings, without very much happening in the way of plot.
The lack of actual things going on bothered me for a while till it stopped bothering me. Water’s description of wartime London is incredibly well-researched (the 1945 part especially is sublime), and her lovely writing just sold me on the book. I really got a feel for how things were like in London at that time. Her handling of feminist themes are also spot-on. I loved especially how subtly she brought out that war could be liberating for women. With men away, women finally got the chance to expand their horizons. Women like Kay would have just withered in the olden days, but in wartime, she was appreciated and lauded even.
Overall, this was a book that left me with a lingering feeling of melancholy. It’s story about ordinary characters caught up in extraordinary times. I slowly fell in love with the book. It takes some amount of patience though as the plot is nothing much. It’s more a slice of life kind of novel.