So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door.
Sarah Waters has become known as the lesbian writer of modern times, famed for placing her carefully explored gay heroines within a Victorian pastiche. Though I was yet to discover her work in a literary sense, I was aware of her reputation as a storyteller and was able to catch the BBC adaptation of Tipping the Velvet which I thoroughly enjoyed. So having a few Sarah Waters novels floating around on various bookshelves and with a love of wartime-based novels, I decided on The Night Watch for my first venture.
Based in 1940s London, The Night Watch is a story told backwards with four interwoven characters and plotlines. Divided into three parts, each set in a different year – the first is 1947, the second reverses back to 1944 and the third ends (or begins, depending on how you look at it) in 1941. Secrets are revealed in reverse, relationships formed before knowing why or how and objects are returned to their rightful owners before the reason and connection between the characters are revealed.
I really enjoyed this unusual formatting, as it keeps you guessing right the way through its first read. You are almost tempted to read the book backwards so you have the correct chronology and I was so close to opening it up again as soon as it was closed just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything!
Enjoyable and unusual as this layout was, it did cause a problem in that the first section, based in 1947, is particularly slow while you wait to discover what has made the characters arrive at each of their current junctures. This stagnation of action could possibly be a deliberate comment on the world the characters find themselves in, post-war, but it is a difficult start to a novel. Though there is no question that from the first line Waters’ use of language is wonderfully descriptive with each character given a distinctive voice and yet I found that I had to wait until the second section before I was fully invested.
The 1944 section really and truly is the physical and emotional heart of the book. Placed in the centre of war-time London, this is the section where the characters come alive and you get to understand why, post-war, some of them feel the way they do. The portrayal of worn-torn London and the reality of women taking up positions in the working world are gritty and well-presented. There is a huge amount of detail strewn throughout Waters’ work and yet it manages to not be consumed by it, the characters of Viv, Kay, Helen and Duncan are the thing.
Waters has been quoted saying ‘I had to more or less figure out the book as I went along’ and at times that translated into the reading of the book. Despite capturing the melancholia of wartime, I wonder if the change in structure, time frame and narrative, all of which are removed from her other novels, had left Waters a little stranded. Some loose ends at the beginning remain loose.
This is a sobering depiction of the affects the Second World War can have on four Londoners – after, during and before the experience of it. Though The Night Watch hasn’t become my favourite novel, I will definitely pick up some more Sarah Waters as her skill of writing and characterisation shone through.