The Night Watch – Book Review

‘I go to the cinema,’ said Kay; ‘there’s nothing funny about that. Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.’ -From The Night Watch, page 110-

In The Night Watch, Sarah Waters has created tension and mystery by peering backwards into the past – beginning in 1947 and regressing back in time so that the end of the novel is actually the beginning of the story. This structure is at once unsettling and fascinating.

The novel spins around four Londoners and their significant others and explores the impact of war on relationships. The reader is introduced to each character – Kay, Helen, Viv and Viv’s brother, Duncan – immediately following WWII in the year 1947. Each character carries secrets and is struggling with events in their history which are undisclosed to the reader. As the novel progresses, Waters carefully unwraps the past, drawing the threads of the characters’ lives together to create a stunning expose about sexuality and the tenuous nature of love amid the historical significance of war.

One of the aspects of the novel which touched me was the exploration of the repercussions of war on youth.

How long did they have to go on, letting the war spoil everything? They had been patient, all this time. They’d lived in darkness. They’d lived  without salt, without scent. They’d fed themselves little scraps of pleasure, like parings of cheese. Now she became aware of the minutes as they passed: she felt them, suddenly, for what they were, as fragments of her life, her youth, that were rushing away like so many drops of water, never to return. -From The Night Watch, page 357-

Waters’ prose – nuanced and full of empathy for her characters – is a bit like reading a narrative poem. Her descriptions set the reader into the novel, revealing the beauty of the human spirit amid the horror of night-time air raids and causalities. The story is a beautifully rendered, character driven look at World War II from 1941 to 1947.

The Night Watch was shortlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes – and it is easy to see why. This was my first Sarah Waters novel, but it will not be my last.

Highly recommended.

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    • Anonymous on February 13, 2008 at 11:38

    It may well be that the very fact that this isn’t a usual setting for Waters is the reason I may be able to read it. After your review I’m certainly going to try it.

    • Anonymous on February 14, 2008 at 00:10

    I have been wanting to dive into this one for awhile now. Maybe I’ll be lucky and fit it in this year. The story sounds so intriguing. Thanks for the great review, Wendy.

    • Anonymous on February 16, 2008 at 18:17

    Thanks for the awesome review Wendy. This book is on my TBR and will stay there. I hope to get to it one of these days!

    • Anonymous on February 18, 2008 at 10:54

    Anne, WendyCat, and Teddy: I look forward to reading what you think of the book once you’ve gotten to it!

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