Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. I’ve only read two of her books so far, with this being the third. Both Fingersmith and The Little Stranger were very different from each other, and this one was different gain, despite being set in the same time period as The Little Stranger. The one crucial, stand out fact about The Night Watch is that is told backwards, with the focus of the narrative being on how the characters ended up in the situations they are in, rather than what is going to happen.

Starting in 1947, we are introduced to Vivien, Kaye, Duncan and Helen, when they are surrounded by a post war gloom, and their personal lives seem to be in a bit of a sad, depressing state. Vivien is in a totally unsatisfactory relationship with a married man, Kaye walks the streets all day then visits the pictures alone in the evenings, Helen is obsessively jealous in her relationship although not necessarily without reason, and Duncan is living a lonely life lodging with a much older man. All the characters seem to have secrets, and it’s these secrets that propel the story forwards because for the majority of the book, as one question gets answered, it only opens up another set of questions! For example, questions from the first few chapters are what exactly happened in Helens past, who is Viv’s boyfriend, what was Duncan’s transgression, who is Mr Mundy, why is Kay like she is and what is the significance of the ring? It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without giving anything away, but during this first part, we really find out nothing more than the eventual fates of the characters, and learn about a few of the interconnections between the characters. Because all these characters stories intertwine, whether it be through family relationships, place of residence, sexual relationships or chance meetings.

As we move on to the second and third parts of the story, most things are gradually revealed, and everything becomes clear. It is really a story that could only work this way round. The characters lives are fairly mundane really, apart from the odd dramatic incident, and obviously, the ever present threat of bombing in both the second and third parts of the novel. To read about these characters lives in chronological order would just be like reading a story about four people, who due to totally random circumstances, happen to cross paths. For me the interest came from the gradual reveal of secrets and mysteries.

Secrets and secrecy are a big part of this book. All the characters are keeping secrets from other people, and this secrecy continues right to the conclusion (or beginning, depending which way you look at it). It is the secrets that they keep from each other that keep the story going, and add the trademark twists that seem to be a staple of Sarah waters books. They are not big, shocking twists here, but nevertheless they are moments of ‘oh, now why didn’t I see that coming’ scattered throughout the story, with most not being totally resolved until the end.

It’s probably obvious from this that I enjoyed the structure of this, and I loved the secrecy involved both from the characters in the story, and as a natural consequence of that, from the reader. But it’s not the only thing that makes this book work. The setting within London, both during the blitz, and in the immediate post war years is written about with a terrific clarity. I said earlier that the characters themselves lead relatively mundane lives, which in their individual personal lives, they do, specifically in the first part, once the war has finished. But their melancholic gloom is set against the much bigger picture of war devastated London, both after and during the blitz. Throughout the course of this story we witness how the war has a direct impact on the lives of the characters, particularly the women, but not exclusively, as well as how living in 1940’s Britain had a serious impact on any less than normal relationships as, being a Sarah Waters book, some of these characters are homosexual. Trying to conduct any kind of homosexual relationship then was done behind closed doors. And there we come full circle, back to the secrets again. Secrets, lies and hidden truths!


anothercookiecrumbles said...

This was my least favourite book by Sarah Waters (although I still have Tipping The Velvet on the wishlist). I liked the structure of this book, but for some reason, I didn't love it as much as Fingersmith. Oh well - glad you enjoyed it!!

Helen said...

I'm very new to Sarah Waters - the only one of her books I've read is Affinity, which I loved. This one sounds great too, but I think I really need to read Fingersmith first. I feel like I'm the only person in the world who still hasn't read it!

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I like Sarah Waters but have not read this one. Sounds good!

Birdy said...

Great review, sounds like an interesting read! I have enjoyed Fingersmith and I have Little Stranger waiting to be read on my shelf... I think this too would be a good addition! :)

Jessica said...

We must have practically identical book shelfs. I have also read The little Stranger and Fingersmith and I do also own The Night Watch but I havent got around to reading it yet.