The Night Watch is written in three parts that take you in reverse order through time: 1947, 1944, and 1941. The book chronicles the lives of its protagonists, Viv, Helen, Julia, Kay, and Duncan, in wartime London.
The pivotal focus (and the source for the title) is “The Blitz,” the sustained nighttime bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany between September 1940 and May 1941. While the Blitz hit many towns and cities across the country, it began with an attack on London for 76 consecutive nights. Those who endured The Blitz watched for the bombs that would start to fall just after dark.
By the end of May 1941, over 43,000 civilians, half of them in London, had been killed by bombing and more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged in London alone.
In Night Watch, the character Kay works on a mobile ambulance unit that deals with casualties caused by the nighttime bombings. But the raids impact all the characters in one way or another.
With the narrative proceeding backwards, we see in the very beginning the alienation, inchoate bitterness, sense of loss, and melancholy of the characters. It is only as their pasts are revealed that we find out how they got to this point. In part, the end of the war is to blame. War provides a sense of drama to any who live through its scourges. The smallest acts can be heroic. Emotions are constantly keyed up. In peacetime, life reverts back to the mundane, and those who were once “important” now find they have no more opportunity to be exceptional. (As Chris Hedges notes in his award winning book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. … It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.”) Further, there is no more reason for the passionate encounters that are rationalized during wartime by the sense of fragility of existence.
At the story’s outset in 1947, the war is over, and life is rather prosaic for the characters. Helen and Vivien work at a lonely hearts bureau – an apt theme that is a microcosm of the whole. Vivien is in a less-than satisfactory relationship with a married man. Helen is in a troubled relationship with Julia. The three women know Kay, but we are not sure how in the beginning. Vivien’s brother Duncan seems to be in a caretaker relationship with an “uncle” but this is also undefined for us.
When we meet Kay, she is in the habit of going to the movies, but only when they are halfway over, so she can see the ending first, and then go back to the beginning. And so it is with this book. We see how it all ends, but we don’t know why, and so we are compelled to read on to understand the plot.
Discussion: From the other two books I read by Waters – Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, I was prepared for her amazing attention to detail in setting the scenes for her dramas. I don’t recall another account of wartime London that so faithfully captures the atmosphere of not only the extraordinary, but also – and especially – the quotidian.
Yet it is the sheer banality of the characters and their lives that to me is both the main strength and the main weakness of this book, viz: it tells just how it was for ordinary, self-absorbed people to have gone through the London Blitz in World War II. But how much do we really care about ordinary, self-absorbed people? On the other hand, don’t we, the majority of us who just pass our days on jobs and errands and our small universe of friends and relationships deserve to have our stories told? And yet, how much interest can there ultimately be in insular stories that have no more to say than “I was happy, then I was sad,” or the reverse?
The characters are undeniably well-drawn, however. All of them are emotionally needy. And so there is a great deal in this book about intrusion and constriction of space, metaphorically and otherwise. This truncation of space ranges from the emotional confinement of insecurity to the physical confinement of prison walls. Even bathrooms play a major role in this book. These small areas, meant to be private spaces, are shared in wartime, and thereafter in non-wealthy London: the desire for elbowroom and privacy must perforce be transferred to other aspects of life. Thus the characters engage in any number of attempts to escape unwanted closeness, even as they crave attachment. But what they get is resignation and despair.
Evaluation: Waters does a terrific job in portraying “quiet desperation” and of documenting the toll that ordinariness can take on lives that have been exposed to more. I appreciate her talent; perhaps she is too good here, however, as her characters convinced me they weren’t worthy of all that attention.
Published by Riverhead Books, 2006