The Night Watch
by Sarah Waters (Virago, 2006)
The Night Watch is a riveting and peculiar novel. Riveting because it has all of Sarah Waters’ trademark style of getting under your skin. And peculiar because the story is narrated in reverse. Knowing what has happened does in no way kill the fun, for it is in the unveiling of the how and and why that the real fun lies.
Set in 1940s London, the story casts four disparate yet fatefully connected characters, three women and one man, whom we meet in 1947. World War II is now over, but its shadow still lingers. We meet, in the following order, the solitary, butchish Kay Langrish who feels drawn to alternately wandering the streets and watching the comings and goings of her landlord’s ‘patients’; the seemingly fragile young Duncan Pearce, needy and troubled, and Mr Mundy, his “Uncle Horace”; the delicate, insecure Helen Giniver being pulled in two directions by her relationship with successful crime author Julia Standing and her shame in such an alliance; and Viv Pearce, whose loyalty her soldier boyfriend takes for granted. A motley collection indeed. But what is the thread that binds them together?
To find out, we need to flash back to 1944, with rationing and blackouts and hope and courage. Yet, it throws up even more questions, to find the genesis of which, we will need to go back to the beginning. So, it is in 1941 that one understands that things are not always what they seem, that—to use a cliché popular with youngsters of today—sometimes life just happens to you.
Sarah Waters is no stranger to the historical canvas and she shows us wartime and post-war London with style. The danger of an incendiary landing on you, the wanting for a simple thing like coffee… the loss, the longing, the hope, the wait, the darkness. These are all palpable in the setting. Sometimes you catch yourself straining your ears for the all-clear.
In many ways, Night Watch is a stunning piece of writing, but is not Waters’ best work. It certainly doesn’t match up to the shattering twist that was Fingersmith, the creepy and suspenseful Affinity or the over-the-shoulder spooky Little Stranger. The supporting cast is a bit of a let down, for example.
Helen’s girlfriend Julia didn’t feel particularly convincing to me, nor did their developing romance. It felt more of telling rather than showing—it was hard to get a sense of Julia apart from what we are told. But in Waters’ defence, maybe that’s deliberate since all we get is Helen’s point of view, not Julia’s herself. Then, Duncan’s earnest innocence is endearing, but his meeting his former prison bunkmate leaves some question marks. Nor did I completely get the significance of the elderly Mr Mundy.
There were a few points where I half-considered giving up the book, but it had just enough to keep you from putting it down. Given the set-up and the characters, I found the overall journey slightly disappointing, though I rather enjoyed the ride for the most part. If you’re new to Sarah Waters, this book is probably not the one recommended for a introduction to her work.
The Night Watch may not be a fingernails-between-teeth page-turner, yet it won’t let you sleep till you’ve turned the last one.