Review of “The Night Watch” by Sarah Waters

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.

Ruins of a London Bookshop after an air raid on October 8, 1940

Ruins of a London Bookshop after an air raid on October 8, 1940

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.

Drinking tea in London during the Blitz

Drinking tea in London during the Blitz

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.

Milk delivery during the Blitz

Milk delivery during the Blitz

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Riverhead Books, 2006

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31 Responses to Review of “The Night Watch” by Sarah Waters

  1. Teresa says:

    Interesting. I agree with everything you say here about the book, except that I thought that the ordinariness of the characters’ lives was a strength of the book. But I think that comes down to the fact that I *love* reading about the effect of history on ordinary people. So, for example, in reading nonfiction, I’d rather read social histories that books about the people in charge. But, yes, I can see how that kind of thing wouldn’t appeal to everyone. Great review!

  2. diane says:

    I’ve read Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, and am looking forward to Affinity and Little Stranger by Waters. For some reason this one has not made my list. Sorry it was just okay. Thanks 4 sharing your thoughts.

  3. JoAnn says:

    I read this a few years ago, but have never been able to explain why it was just a ‘meh’ experience. I think you’ve said it perfectly!

  4. Trisha says:

    I still haven’t moved beyond Fingersmith with Sarah Waters; I loved that book so much, I’m almost scared to pick up any of her other books. This does sound like a book I would like though as ordinary people in extraordinary situations fascinates me.

  5. Sandy says:

    After reading The Little Stranger and Fingersmith, I went into Night Watch with very specific expectations. It wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. I kept waiting for something to happen. After I finished it though, I couldn’t get it out of my head…the backwards motion of the plot, the setting, the heartbreakingly human characters. It was a much more subtle story, but one that I appreciated more and more.

  6. bermudaonion says:

    I do think it’s the ordinary people I would want to read about, since that’s exactly what I am. The book sounds fascinating.

  7. Barbara says:

    Since I liked The Little Stranger mainly because of her writing style, I think I will read this book. I’m interested in that detailed depiction of London during the Blitz – can’t imagine living through that desperate time. Thanks for the review.

  8. softdrink says:

    I actually wish she’d stick with stories like this and not try for the woo-woo stuff that didn’t work for me in The Little Stranger.

  9. Staci says:

    Your review was excellent and has me very curious to pick up my copy of this book. I like that I know a bit more coming into the story and most especially that this is my first Waters book.

  10. Julie P. says:

    This review is amazing — definitely one of your best!! I haven’t read any Sarah Waters yet, but I’m anxious to do so. I’m wondering what book I should start with.

  11. Margot says:

    What a great idea to tell the story in reverse. I haven’t read anything by this author but I may try this one. I like the way you added the World War II pictures to this post. It adds what I’m assuming is the flavor of the book.

  12. Alyce says:

    I think it takes a lot of skill to tell a story in reverse and make it engaging. The only recent story I’ve read with this structure that I really liked was Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears.

    I haven’t heard of this particular Sarah Waters book before, and I’m wondering if it’s because of the reasons that you listed for not loving this book.

  13. I just bought this one, based solely on the fact that it was written by Waters.

  14. Meghan says:

    I really enjoyed this book myself – I agreed with Teresa above that the ordinariness of the characters added to the story for me. I liked the difference it made in their lives, even if it had to end, although I can see your point too.

  15. EL Fay says:

    That’s a very intriguing, if disturbing, idea – that war can provide us with what we want the most: to matter, to be noble, to do something important, to stand for something. We usually see hate, greed, or aggression blamed for conflict and warfare but I think there really is something deeper to it than that.

  16. Rebecca says:

    Sounds like a fascinating novel. Very impressive review too- thanks!

  17. Jenny says:

    I know what you mean about the characters’ being unsympathetic – that’s actually something I’ve struggled with in nearly all of Waters’ books. Even when I can’t put my finger on what I dislike about her characters, I often feel disconnected from them. But her gorgeous writing and attention to historical detail saves her books for me, and Night Watch might be my favorite of hers. Partly because I like knowing the end at the beginning!

  18. ds says:

    Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. This is a book that has stuck with me, precisely because of those characters. Of them all, Kay was my favorite. She had an intelligence, and an innate sympathy lacking in the others.

    Interesting quote on the nature of war. Bears thinking on. Thank you for sharing it, and for this thorough review!

  19. Lisa says:

    Great review! The drama and tension of war and exactly the reason that so many vets have so much trouble reverting back to life as a civilian.

  20. Mystica says:

    Thanks for a great review. I have just read only one of her books and found it a bit eerie but good!

  21. kiss a cloud says:

    Wow Jill, even if you gave it only 3.5 stars you made me very interested in reading this book. I had got a copy recently, snapped up for a bargain, but knew nothing about it other than Sarah Waters is a fave of book bloggers. I had read Teresa and Jenny’s reviews and now yours. I’m really looking forward to it. Thanks!

  22. I’ve read through all the comments. Very interesting. I am such a lover of Sarah Waters that this book was on my TBR list. I just read The Postmistriss recently, and it seems Blake took a similar approach and focused on the ordinary lives of people during the war. I was fascinated by your review and I really want to read this now. It sounds so different from what she normally writes. Thanks.

  23. zibilee says:

    What a wonderful review! I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time, but have not yet managed to get time to read it. I think that when I do I will be more cognizant of the characters. Thanks!

  24. Jenners says:

    I’ve been trying to decide what book to read next by Ms. Waters but I don’t think this will be it.

  25. sagustocox says:

    sounds like an interesting book that looks at the ordinary in an extraordinary situation. Thanks for the honest review.

  26. Amanda says:

    Since I disliked Fingersmith so much, this one and Tipping the Velvet are the ones people have said I should try.

  27. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I bought this several months ago because I’m intrigued by the story being told in reverse order. Sorry it didn’t work for you, though.

  28. Pingback: Reviews and Articles Round Up « The Lesbrary

  29. JoV says:

    I love the black and white pictures of the London blitz. I love how you always include histories in every book you read and relate it to other pop culture and stuff. Pure genius of lateral thinking! 😀

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