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The Night Watch - Sarah Waters
The Night Watch is a tale of passion and secrets told against the backdrop of 1940's London. The story revolves around the loves and losses of 4 characters Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan and how each of their stories interconnect over a 7 year period.
I am sorry to say that I felt that this book was a bit of a let down. Whilst the setting and time period are wonderfully imagined I found the storylines to be overly drawn out and the characters to be rather 2 dimensional.
The book is written in a reverse narrative whereby we are introduced to the characters and then invited to find out how they arrived at their 1947 situations. At first this was an intriguing concept but I do not feel that Waters used this to the best advantage. I was hoping that Waters would present characters in 1947 and then shatter your assumptions of them as you delved into their back stories, however I found this not to be the case. As the novel went on I found it too obvious to know what was going to happen as I already knew thanks to the 1947 years, as such the final section of the story felt a bit pointless.
I felt like the book was a bit of a struggle not least because I did not really feel anything for the leading characters. I often felt that the characters motives were not fully explained and as a result I found it hard to engage with their actions. My least favourite character was Helen who I found rather brattish. As a novel I found it disjointed and despite the 500 pages felt little knowledge of or affection for the characters.I felt the character of Duncan and his story line was out of place within a novel that is essentially about forbidden relationships. The story of the characters relationships however did not really grab my attention either and to be honest the book was only saved by attention to period detail and a couple of very good events.
The descriptions of the 1940's was absolutely wonderful. The period detail in the novel was brilliant throwing you instantly back to the 1940's, the book was obviously very well researched. I really enjoyed the Blitz aspect of the novel, especially the sections when Kay is engaged in her work in the ambulances during air raids. Waters effectively brings the horror of the London Blitz to life I could have read a whole novel based on Kays nightly work. Viv's story in the middle section (I don't want to give away too much) was also brilliant if rather graphic and was the only real time I felt any empathy for the characters. However such events were few and far between which made the novel a bit of a slog. I can't help but think that this novel would have really benefited from being a lot shorter.
I know that Sarah Waters is a much loved novelist and I am sure many of her fans will disagree with this review but for me this book was a great disappointment not least after having read the excellent "The Little Stranger".
Sarah Waters is well known for her excellent novel Tipping the Velvet. After reading that and loving it I then went on to read Fingersmith and Affinity, all three books have a lot in common as they feature a female protagonist in a lesbian love story set in the Victorian era. This book deviates from these first three books as it is set during and post the second world war, and follows the stories of a few different people.
The story is split into three parts. Using the same characters in all three it tells the story of what is happening in their lives in 1947, 1944 and 1941. The book starts in 1947, just after the second world war has finished, and then works backwards through time. The four main characters are quickly introduced. Kay is quite a manly woman in her mid 30s, always wearing trousers and shirts and seems pretty down about her life. She goes to see her friend Mickey who she worked with on the ambulances during the war, Mickey clearly dislikes seeing her friend as unhappy as she is and wants her to get over what they both know is plaguing her. At the end of the 1947 part of the story she meets a woman from her past, who she seems happy to see. Helen and Viv are working for a match making agency. Viv is having an affair with an married man that she met during the war and Helen is in a same sex relationship with a woman called Julia that she doesn't dare tell anyone about. Vivs brother Duncan spent the war in prison, and is now living with an aged Mr Mundy. He is working in a factory when by chance he meets Robert Fraser who he had shared a cell with. The two meet up together for a drink and soon become friends again. The first part of the book shows what kind of a life all the characters have at the moment and hints at things in the past that got them there. The rest of the book explains how they got there, how their lives are all intertwined and reveals any dark secrets from their past that you would never expect.
I love the concept for this book, with time moving backwards. None of the characters seem particularly happy at first and you kind of expect the book to move forward to them all becoming happier from certain things happening. But it doesn't, it goes back to show you how they arrived at this point in their lives and how their actions had certain consequences. This works really well, they way the book is written really makes you want to find out more about their lives. I also like the way that you get to see the characters lives intertwining in the past. It is a bit of a complicated plot having been written this way and sometimes you do find yourself thing 'eh? They know each other? What???', but then everything does fall into place quite well. This way of writing also makes you really like the characters, possibly as you become so curious about their pasts. You also know that in the end (because that comes at the beginning) there is hope for all of them, which leaves you with a really good feeling over all. The scene is set really well, the thoughts, dress and speech of people in the 1940s is, I assume, well depicted (i certainly wasn't born then), and you can see the difference between the ideas of then and now. There are also some really good little details that you may not of come across before in school or in books, about how people dealt with the war and what they did at time. The girls are just your average every day Londoners and so all work in pretty menial jobs which were all very needed at the time. So it's nice to get an insight into that.
Overall this is just a great book. I think the writing is fantastic, I love the characters, they are all written superbly and you feel like you really get to know them. It not only has a great story but written from a historical point of view it's also very interesting. I absolutely can't fault it.
It seems almost fitting that I should be posting a review about this book in the week that marks the 70th anniversary of the Second World War as that is the setting for Sarah Water's fourth novel The Night Watch. I am completely unfamiliar with the author or indeed any of her former works and selected this book in the library purely because of its wartime setting and that it stated on the cover the book had been short-listed for the Booker Prize 2006 and the Orange prize, I was also unaware that Waters is known for her gay fiction novels and so was pleasantly surprised at having another angle on the book that I was not expecting.
Before I even begin to analyse the characters and the plot the single thing that sticks with me about this book was its fantastic use of time. Water's cleverly uses a backward strategy, an exciting and interesting device that sees the reader meeting the characters at the end of their stories in 1947 and travelling back to see how this came about, stopping in 1944 and in war torn and desperate 1941. This device has the bizarre effect of when you reach the end of the novel you are tempted to read the beginning again for you have seen the pattern of their lives and the events unfold in an extraordinary manner. I almost felt cheated as you expect to see character development in a novel and instead you see the character deconstructed, where they came from and not where they are going.
And so to the plot. This book thrives on its characters, the reader is the observer and in 1947 you are introduced to the four key players all of whom immediately strike you as recovering from the trauma that the war inflicted on them for different reasons.
Kay a manly women who appears most stilted and unable to progress since her days spent as a paramedic during the war. Duncan who spent the war years in prison and is now seeking to rebuild his life. Viv, his sister who is embroiled with a married man and has been for many years and then Helen, Viv's colleague who presents a calm and collected outer face but at the beginning of the novel is ravaged by jealous urges and struggles to control her feelings towards her partner Julie. To begin with you drift with them and struggles that are now there lives, then returning to 1944 you are in the thick of it feeling their hope beginning to run out and slowly gleaning a few more clues concluding with a jolt to 1941 to see how it all began.
I suppose if I am honest not a lot happens, of course it is intermitted with air raids, death of ancillary characters and the general hum drum goings on of post war life but the real story is in the characters involvement and links with one another. It becomes apparent very quickly that some of the key characters are in, or have been in gay relationships, Waters tenderly examines these relationships and you become aware of how hidden and private gay couples had to be in those times and how difficult it was for them to lead normal lives. Waters is blowing open the taboo on relationships in that era, it would be ludicrous to think that gay people did not exist and the book makes the point heavily that they just had to hide their feelings. It is interesting that as a reader you view Viv's relationship with a married man with the same distaste that war time Britain probably viewed gay relationships.
Despite these challenging feelings towards the characters you grow to be involved with them, for some you have seen the car crash already happen as you have joined their shattered lives in 1947 but for others as the book goes back in time your pity, understanding and feeling for them grows.
Waters is a great story teller and weaves you expertly and majestically through bombed out London with imagery so vivid you can place yourself on the street corners. Some of her depictions of the injuries which Kay encounters are graphic and portray a tiny part of what the people of London endured.
I am only awarding four stars because the back in time device left you without any feeling of completeness which I appreciate is as the author intended. Overall it was a great read, I cared for these characters and strangely seeing how they had reached the places they were in at the start of the novel left you with a sense of understanding but also frustration that some of them had not moved on and that others were still making the same mistakes. For me the mark of a good novel is one that leaves you with lasting thoughts and this one certainly does that.
Amazon paperback £5.99
Author of fantastic 'Fingersmith' and 'Tipping the Velvet', Sarah Waters made a name for herself as an amazing storyteller and I was eager to read this as soon a sit became available. It did not disappoint and the following review was one I wrote for Waterstones.com not long after finishing it.
In the Night Watch, Sarah Waters has moved away from the Victorian setting of her previous novels, forward into 1940s London; into the lives of people who are just trying to return to normality after years of war. Beginning in the late 1940's, the novel follows the movements of four characters as they realise that nothing can ever be the same for them again.
Kay, who drove ambulances during the war find herself alone with memories; Duncan has secrets in his past that few know of and he finds himself tied to those who do; Viv no longer feels the thrill of her secret liaisons with her married lover and Helen finds herself destroying her relationship as she struggles to cope with her own insecurities. As their lives are traced back in a skilfully woven story the links between them and the secrets that they keep are gradually revealed, and the reader begins to see how their lives are intertwined, often in surprising and unexpected ways.
With her usual blend of vivid characterisation and expertly crafted plot Sarah Water's latest offering is every bit as captivating as her previous novels - the work of a master storyteller.
Highly recommended if you liked her other novels and if you haven't then what are you waiting for? You're missing a treat!
The opening pages introduce you to an intriguing array of characters, including: Kay, who seems to have no purpose in her life and lives in a building that seems liable to collapse at any time; Mr Mundy, who receives a strange kind of counseling designed to help his arthritis (from a man in Viv's building); and Duncan, who tells people that Mr Mundy is his uncle, though he isn't. Gradually, Walters establishes four main characters, Kay, Helen, Vivienne and Duncan (Viv's brother), each of whom seems to be suffering in some way that is connected to their past. The connections between them all are not immediately clear, and in fact are often tenuous, even where they should be strongest - Viv and her brother lead almost totally separate lives, besides an obligatory weekly visit.
The interest in the first part of the book is found in wondering how these characters are connected and why they are suffering. The problem is that the novel becomes quite fragmented since the stories really unfold almost totally independently of each other, and tell of such different characters and events that you could get frustrated hearing about Helen and her lover Julie when all you really want to know is why Duncan is so panicked by meeting someone from his past who knows him and Mr Mundy.
The issue of why these characters suffer begins to be addressed when a major time shift occurs: the novel begins in 1947 but is divided into three sections, set in 1947, 1944 and 1941 respectively. This allows us to discover the reasons for each character's current situation and quite quickly reveals some significant changes and events, although Duncan's full story is not revealed until the final section. This is the most engaging section of the novel as each character struggles through battle-torn Britain, trying to hold their lives and relationships together.
The final section of the novel is very short, allowing only one glimpse into each character's past. This denies the reader as easy resolution: you have to return to the first section to remind yourselves of the characters' futures and consider whether their final positions are hopeful or dreadful. Personally, I would have preferred a return to 1947, or even a shift further forward in time to see how the characters are coping several years after the war, but Walters does allow the reader enough evidence to finally judge the characters. The third section helps to create a real sense of empathy with several of the characters as we know how their hopeful beginnings will turn to ash and ruin.
Walters has been criticised by some for including several unnecessary helpings of lesbian sex, which I do agree with to a certain extent. However, most of the scenes do allow the reader to draw some conclusions about the relationships between the characters, and only one sexual scene, set in a prison, struck me as being truly gratuitous.
My bigger concern was the graphic description of two events in the novel. One in particular was described at such length and made me feel so queasy that I had to take a few breaks from reading simply to settle my stomach. Although it is realistic and artistically valid, it is difficult to read and I almost felt that I would have liked the novel to come with a warning!
While mentioning realism, I think it worth noting that this is what Walters does best. However irritating some of the characters may be at times, I found them fully convincing, and even when they commit their most melodramatic actions, I would defy anyone to question the veracity of their experience. In particular, one scene in which a character waits with increasing anxiety for her lover to return from (what she suspects) is an illicit liason, her thoughts and actions are truly human.
Walters also draws a very convincing portrait of wartime London: the excitement and fear of being out in a blackout; the terror and yet the dreary monotony of the bombing; the thrill of driving an ambulance and the stomach-churning task of collecting parts of bodies. For this skilful portrait alone, the novel would seem to be worth reading.
And yet...I am reluctant to really recommend it. I did not find myself turning pages eagerly; I did not find the novel especially 'thrilling' or 'powerful' as suggested by the quotations inside the jacket. The characters and setting are well-drawn, the structure encourages empathy and irony, but on the whole the novel felt flat to me. Perhaps because it is episodic - it captures three short segments of each character's life - I felt it was more of an historical document than a novel. I could not have learned more about each character if I'd read their diaries, despite the numerous ambiguities. (We never really discover the truth behind Duncan and Mr Mundy's relationship, for example.)
So is it worth reading? Probably, yes: it is well-written enough to keep your attention and you may find the various plot lines more engaging than I did. Would I recommend it? On the whole, no; there are more interesting, genuinely thrilling novels out there that feel more rewarding, rather than simply slightly cleverly done.
This is the story of several people in the 1940s, during and following the Second World War. The story is told backwards, beginning in 1947, then jumping to 1944, and finally 1941. Waters does a excellent job of raising enough questions about the characters in the earlier chapters to make the reader stick with the odd time line, to find out how things came to be for each character. They are sympathetic, but with all the oddities of personality of real people.
I thought it was fascinating how the author made the lives of her characters intertwine whether due to love or emergency, and I really enjoyed the way the period was evoked - particularly when it came to interior design! London almost seems to be another character in this novel - it is almost all based in this location and the scenery is updated as events progress, or regress.
At times I wished the plot would speed up and things would be explained faster, but ultimately everything made sense.
The Nightwatch is Sarah Waters fourth novel and is one of the favourites to win this years Booker prize. It has received a good reception from critics, but a more mixed reaction from her readers. The title of this review reflects the fact that after Waters described "Tipping the Velvet" as a Victorian lesbian romp, she is now often seriously cited as has having created a new genre of the same name. This is the first of her books to step outside the Victorian era and takes place in 1940's London.
As you might expect with a writer of her ability, the period is beautifully described and convincing in detail, without going over the top. There is a sense of austerity about the novel, an early feeling that characters are 'keeping their chins up' and displaying the British 'stiff upper lip'. But behind every stiff upper lip there is a story to be told, and in this, case told backwards.
The structure is unusual in that the story starts in 1947 and ends in 1941. So we begin with the characters near to the end of their story and start to discover how each of them reached the place they now find themselves in. In a way the first half of the first line tells us what to expect although we don't yet know it; "'So this', said Kay to herself, 'is the sort of person you've become:'" The structure made me wonder about the work that must have gone into creating the storyline in such an out of the ordinary way and at times I felt that that the effort showed; some elements felt rushed and some characters didn't seem to have the emotional depth of those in previous novels.
There are several characters in The Nightwatch, but the main heroine is Kay who has both the first and last lines of the book. Kay is what we would probably today call a butch dyke, a woman in her element during the war where she drives an ambulance during the blitz, but seemingly made redundant by society in the years following. The other main characters are Viv who I kept imagining as a combination of British actresses from World War 2 films, her co-worker Helen, and her brother Duncan, a sensitive young man who has the shadow of disgrace hanging over him - for what we don't find out until near the end.
To begin with, I found the Nightwatch quite slow. I wasn't all that bothered about getting on with reading it, as there was a lack of tension or suspense, nothing to make me want to turn the page in a hurry, but if you have struggled with it I would say it's worth sticking with as it does become more dramatic and exciting. I found the style somewhat detached, not as intimate as her previous work which may be partly due to her writing in the third person for a change. There's a grimness about the mood of the characters that can make the book a bit hardgoing in places because that mood transfers itself to the reader and I was reminded of Doris Lessing who also writes in a way that, for example; is irritating when reading about an irritating character, but still has the quality to keep you interested. Waters likes to write about people who have been overlooked by history textbooks, sometimes it seems as though history is a stone which she lifts to examine all the life that goes on underneath it. Dark secrets are explored and one of the more memorable scenes of the book takes place during the blackout, when Julia and Helen take a midnight tour around the churches of London; "They might have been walking through murky water, so absolutely strange and dense was the quality of the night here, and so freighted with violence and loss."
The length and settings of Waters books as well as her capacity for entertaining storytelling always make me feel that I will be drawn into an epic and escapist work, but Waters is never cosy. She has often made me squirm with discomfort and there's a description of a botched abortion in The Nightwatch which I have to admit I did not have the courage to read properly, there are also other graphic scenes involving sexual activity and descriptions of victims of the blitz.
As I came to the end, I expected to come back to 1947 and ended up going back and re-reading some of the earlier part of the book. Maybe it was designed to be read that way, but it felt like bit of an odd reading experience. Of course, there isn't really any reason why a novel should end at the end point of a story, in this case it's a bit like when you meet people for the first time; you find out about them gradually, but I don't think the story especially benefits from this structure either. It could probably have been told in linear time or in a flashback style equally well. Nonetheless, it's good to see an author experimenting and stepping out of familiar ground, Waters obviously values her artistic integrity and that is to be respected. On reflection, although I don't often read books more than once I think a second reading of this might be more enjoyable and rewarding than the first time around.
For me, The Nightwatch didn't compare favourably with Waters first three novels, but on it's own merits it is a good read and I look forward to reading her next.
Details: Currently out in Hardcover: 480 pages, paperback due out early next year, Publisher: Virago, ISBN: 1844082466, Amazon price: new; £10.18 + p&p; used & new available from £9.50.
I have bought every book in print by this Author. Why ? I based my judgement on my experience of her works entitled Fingersmith and my favourite book, Affinity. Her descriptive work is astounding. What Sarah Waters achieved in her earlier books was to take every fragment of thought and reason, every emotion, dissect it, describe it and take the reader into the minds of her superbly drawn characters. This is a truly outstanding achievement for a modern writer, and I am not easily impressed. The former books were set against an historical background, and in this, Sarah Waters excels and the detail used is exquisitely believable.
The Night Watch is based in war torn England of the early 1940's, and tells the story in a strange, back to front manner, of the main characters, with little vignettes of detail of the people that play a part within their lives. The opening chapter tells you about who these characters are and the journey through the book tells you the path that lead the characters to being the way they are portrayed, giving sense and reason to their roles in the story. Much research was done, though somewhere along the line, the story failed, in that instead of concentrating on a couple of main characters, what the writer did was to try and create too many characters that come off the page like badly sketched individuals that simply do not work together to create a whole image.
Vivian is the faithful doormat character that meets her married serviceman in secret, and her devotion to him seems ill-founded and illogical. Vivians brother is possibly one of the better drawn up characters although in the early stages of the book, the reader is lead to believe him to be different to other boys of his age, although his difference seems to be in his sensitivity to others, rather than any ailment. His story is an interesting one.
The other girls that make up the story are Helen, who is portrayed as very sweet and naive, Kay, an ambulance driver throughout the war years, and Julia, who form a neat triangle of relationships past and present. Jealousy, love, passion, and needs are well described, although not sufficiently for me to have empathised with the characters or what was happening to them. I could not help comparing the relationships in this book with those portrayed in her earlier books, and there was a distinct lack of reason or logic, something that Sarah Waters is noted for in her other stories. It was hard for me to feel anything towards these ladies with their closeted love that would certainly have been scorned in the early forties, where the story is set. I felt this touched on unfamiliar territory to me as a reader, although Sarah Waters dealt with relationships between ladies in such a crystal clear manner in Fingersmith and Affinity.
This was a difficult period of British history, when homes and lives were being destroyed by bombings, and when things that we take for granted these days were rationed and in short supply, and perhaps in those days, priorities were different, although I feel that the writer failed in explaining to the reader what made that difference, as she had so cleverly in her other books.
For those who have read and loved Affinity and Fingersmith, the latter of which was made into a television series by the BBC, and who thrived on the intimacy of description and emotion within the written word, I would say to avoid this book. It will disappoint you. For those inexperienced and unfamiliar with the works of Sarah Waters, I would suggest starting with the other books mentioned before attempting this one. Her writing is amazing in both the examples shown, although this one was an unclear and cluttered mixture that just didnt work.
Available from Amazon new at 10.18GBP in Hardback.
or 11.21 GBP for the signed limited edition.
Paperback from 7.99 GBP
Audio CD from 7.99 GBP
Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd (2 Feb 2006)
My recommendation : Borrow it if you must, but read her other works first.
Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked out streets, illicit liaisons, sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch is the work of a truly brilliant and compelling storyteller. This is the story of four Londoners - three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching ...Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret ...Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover ...Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances ...Tender, tragic and beautifully poignant, set against the backdrop of feats of heroism both epic and ordinary, here is a novel of relationships that offers up subtle surprises and twists. The Night Watch is thrilling. A towering achievement.