By Sarah Waters
Been hearing nothin' but praise for Sarah Waters, so was delighted to find used copies of her two most recent while perusing English bookshops in Amsterdam earlier this fall. It was not my intention to read two novels in succession about WWII London featuring conscientious objectors and ambulance drivers (see previous post about Christopher Priest’s The Separation). How often does that happen?
Comparatively speaking, The Night Watch has a somewhat more conventional structure than The Separation. Don’t know if some reviewers are on drugs or what, but one had likened it to a topsy-turvy time scheme or jigsaw puzzle, the equivalent of walking into a movie and watching the second half first. This is so not the case. The narrative moves in a linear fashion, though backwards in time.
In 1947, we are introduced to four main characters who seem somewhat stuck in limbo as they adjust to postwar life, yet they are all linked by their past experiences in wartime London. There's mysterious, solitary Kay - a courageous ambulance driver during the war - now trying to search for some purpose; sweet naïve Helen, who suspects her girlfriend Julia of being unfaithful; pretty and charismatic Vivian, stuck in a doomed relationship with a married ex-soldier; and Vivian’s brother Duncan, formerly in prison for some mysterious reason and now wrestling with demons from the past. The bulk of the novel is comprised of 1944, and then finally the shortest section, 1941. Thus we first see what kind of jaded, disappointed people these characters have become after the war, what happened to them during the war, and the sense of hope or foreboding they had before the war.
I would agree with this Guardian review that not much happens in the first chunk of the book: coworkers take a tea break and have “desultory, guarded conversations"; a lesbian couple go for a picnic and run into a friend; two chaps meet for a beer. Generally "ordinary life beautifully described - the ‘chill, bitter, marvellous’ taste of beer in a porcelain cup.”
The middle section, 1944, gets a little more interesting. As the story goes back in time, Waters gradually reveals secrets or establishes the connection one character has with another. However, I did not like the deliberate withholding of Duncan’s back-story for being in prison. This was set up as this big dark secret that does not get revealed until the very end of the novel, and it was disappointingly anti-climactic. I felt that knowing Duncan’s secret earlier in the novel would have helped relate to his character better, since that traumatic event really shaped how he behaved in the present. The whole time, I was wondering why he was so meek and insecure and these character traits can be rather tiring when you don’t know what drives this behaviour. I was glad to hear that another reviewer felt the same way:
“By comparison, Duncan's story doesn't quite work. He is beautifully done, and both his imprisonment and its consequences are utterly convincing. But the cause of the imprisonment, when we get to it, is so bizarre that the reader needs what the form won't allow - a considerable amount of back story. Some plainer offence would have done quite well.”
The one thing that shines in The Night Watch is the portrayal of rather ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, TNW was praised by critics for its attention to detail and meticulous research as for Waters’ earlier Victorian era novels, but TNW goes further in its thoughtful character study combined with a believable evocation of period and place. As the Guardian review observes:
Her ability to bring the times to life is stunning, whether through smell - the "talcum powder, permanent waves, typewriter ink, cigarette smoke, BO" of the typing pool, the "unwashed feet, sour mops, bad food, bad breath" of prison - or through her minute enumerations of her characters' physical lives. There is much face-washing, teeth-cleaning and kettle-boiling carefully described, alongside the illicit sex and bodily peril; Waters brings such a clear-eyed honesty and fresh interest to the everyday that she could probably make drying paint a lively read.
I mostly agree -- up to a point. I’m just not sure if I actually liked TNW as a whole. Like The Separation, both novels were compelling and well-written, but also disappointing for different reasons. The Separation was like a brilliant exercise whose purpose seemed to confound the average reader, while The Night Watch was basically a thoughtful yet ultimately ho-hum soap opera with WWII London as backdrop. The characters in TNW were very ordinary indeed, and all too real, but not exactly likable or identifiable. What is the point of evoking the past in such rich detail if you can't really relate to the characters?
Sometimes it takes an eloquent and like-minded reviewer to make you realize why you didn’t quite like an otherwise generally well-praised book:
I don’t recall another account of wartime London that so faithfully captures the atmosphere of not only the extraordinary, but also – and especially – the quotidian.
… Yet it is the sheer banality of the characters and their lives that to me is both the main strength and the main weakness of this book... how much do we really care about ordinary, self-absorbed people? On the other hand, don’t we, the majority of us who just pass our days on jobs and errands and our small universe of friends and relationships deserve to have our stories told? And yet, how much interest can there ultimately be in insular stories that have no more to say than “I was happy, then I was sad,” or the reverse?
Before The Night Watch, Waters was known for her brilliant novels about young Victorian women reinventing their identities (lovingly known as her Victorian lesbian romps), which were full of melodrama and satisfying plot twists. With TNW, Waters took a different turn with a more downbeat and dispassionate approach with a focus on somber character study. I have a feeling I may enjoy her pre-TNW novels much more! But I still have her next book, The Little Stranger, on my on-deck shelf … so we'll have to see!