‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters

2006, 503 p.

What a good book!  And what an encouraging way to start my reading for 2011 with a book that I gobbled up eagerly and closed with regret at the end.

I’ve read two other works by Sarah Waters: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. While I very much enjoyed them, I wondered if Waters was becoming bogged down in lesbian faux-Victoriana.  When I read that she had broken with 19th century London to move into Blitz Britannia,  I was rather relieved but again a little frustrated that it was yet another narrative with lesbian main characters. But  I know that I should not feel that way, especially when I’m in the hands of a such a sensitive and nuanced author. Many authors that I enjoy have made a particular type of story their own- Dickens with his mosaic carnival of characters; De Lillo with his America; Anne Tyler with her domestic family narratives, and I don’t at all begrudge them another book in a similar vein.  And in my own life experience over the last few months, I’ve come increasingly to sense that what really matters is love and relationships, irrespective of time, politics, country, milieu and the genders of those involved. Every life is a love story of one sort or another- and the variety is endless; or else it is a tragedy.

Waters’ narrative revolves around four main characters: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Her master stroke is to tell the narrative backwards, starting in 1947, then 1944 and finally 1941. It’s a risky technique, though. As a reader there is none of the backgrounding that you come to expect and you are forced to draw your own hypotheses about the characters and how they came to be in the situations in which you originally encounter them.  At 171 pages the opening 1947 section is relatively long to sustain such uncertainty, and there is a drabness about the post-war England it portrays and the flatness of her characters’ lives.

The 1944 section is the real heart of the book, both in terms of length and in character development, and many of the questions and suppositions raised in the first section are spelled or dispelled here.  Her attention to historical detail is assured and deft, and it’s at this point that a book either wins me over or turns me off.  As I’ve often commented, I squirm when an author overloads the narrative with the cargo of historical colour and movement uncovered by too much research: on the other hand, I rebel when anachronistic sensibilities are ascribed to the characters in historical fiction.  Here Waters excels: there was only one point at which the historical detail became suffocating (it was one product-placement of Max Factor too many, I’m afraid), and by writing from a lesbian sensibility she risked, but avoided, the danger of violating the integrity of a historical fiction narrative by framing it with a 21st century mindset.  There is a timelessness about desire, fulfillment, betrayal and loss, in both mixed and same-sex relationships. It was always there, even if it was not written about at the time.

The 1941 section is short, barely 50 pages, and it provides the context that was withheld in the first section.  Somehow, by this point, it no longer matters and you find yourself nodding, as if you already understand.

I found this an absolutely satisfying book.  I’m drawn to stories about the Blitz, and although I do not know enough to judge objectively,  I had a sense that she had captured an emotional fidelity to the time.  Is it too soon, I wonder, to mark this as one of my top reads for 2011?

5 responses to “‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters

  1. I’m always happy to find another admirer of Sarah Waters and I’m glad to hear you believe that what really matters is love and relationships. In her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, Waters has no lesbian characters . . . and that, as much as I loved the novel, frustrated me . One of the most refreshing things for me about Waters’s earlier novels is that she is such a brilliant writer and she wrote about lesbians. What worries me is that she’ll no longer write about lesbian characters now that she’s a firmly entrenched mainstream writer. It seems that the majority of mainstream readers can tolerate a lesbian character here and there, but tire after a few main characters who happen to be lesbian. We’ll see what the future holds. I’ve always said I could read Sarah Waters writing about paint drying!

    • I’m saving up reading ‘The Little Stranger’ for later on, when the exhilaration of ‘The Night Watch’ wears off. I didn’t realize that there were no lesbian characters in it. I’m not sure that she writes about ‘a few main characters who happen to be lesbian’- instead, I feel as if she brings into the spotlight a whole other realm that I am aware is there, but overlook or forget. As you say, it will be interesting to see what she does with her next book.

  2. Loved it too Janine … and I particularly loved the reverse chronology. I love the idea of knowing what happened (in a sense) and then watching how they got there. Have you read Martin Amis’s Time’s arrow. Another novel in reverse, but a very different sort of reverse.

    BTW Chris. I went to an author event with Sarah Waters last year and she wa asked about the Lesbian issue. I didn’t write it up in my blog post on the interview because it wasn’t a driving issue for me one way or another but my recollection is that she said she wasn’t planning to move permanently away from lesbian characters. Time will tell though won’t it?

  3. Pingback: Weekly Link Round Up « The Lesbrary

  4. Pingback: ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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