The Night Watch
by Sarah Waters
This is my fourth Waters novel, but it deviated in a lot of ways from what I've come to expect from her books. There's no vibe of gothic mystery, instead it's more historical fiction. Set in London during World War II, the story follows four main characters, Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Like the other three Waters novels that I’ve read, it’s extremely well written. The setting is beautifully described; the characters are well-drawn, etc., but my problem with this book lay in the plotting and structure.
We start after the war is done and everyone settled back into their lives in 1947. We meet our main characters and they constantly make vague references to things that happened during the war. Later we travel back to 1944 when the city was being bombed to bits by the Germans. Kay is an ambulance driver and rescues people after their homes are bombed. These scenes were some of my favorite in the book. You could feel the fear and smell the smoke as London fell into ruin around its loyal citizens.
Kay’s girlfriend Helen is a less interesting character and one that seems indecisive about what she wants from life. Then there’s Viv, a bright young woman who has gotten caught up in a relationship with a married man named Reggie. The final character is Duncan, a young man serving time in prison. We rotate between the lives of each character, learning tiny bits about how they got where they are, but there are always unanswered questions.
The story moves slowly at first and it took me a while to get into it. The author leaves us intentionally in the dark on quite a few things that she mentions in the first portion of the book. As the novel progresses things are slowly revealed. You supposed to hang in there and trust that it will all be explained, but in the end I never felt like I got the whole story.
By structuring the book in reverse chronological order you remove a huge amount of suspense. When we move back to 1944 and then to 1941 at the very end, we already know who lives and dies and who ends up together. There are obviously pros and cons to this unique method or storytelling, but it does take the suspense out of certain events.
A few of my issues with the book…
At the end we find out that Helen was already almost killed in a bomb blast. If that’s true, why on earth would she refuse to go to the shelter during future bombings? I would think that she would be the first one in the shelter the second the alarm sounded!
Also, Duncan and his friend took suicide ridiculously nonchalantly. It really bothered me that only one of the boys wanted to kill himself it took him about 30 seconds to convince Duncan to join his suicide pact. It was like a big game to them and I can't imagine two teenage boys saying, “What do you want to do this today? I don't know let's kill ourselves. Ok, sounds great!” Also, did I miss something, where it’s explained why Duncan decided to move in with Mr. Mundy?
Viv’s story made a little bit more sense when you see how she met Reggie, except she knew from the get-go that he was on leave to go see his wife and their new baby. My real problem with her wasn't even how they met. What I didn’t get was their ending. He abandons her when she’s in the middle of a medical emergency and about to die. And yet we see in their 1947 section that they are still together with no explanation. That made no sense to me.
BOTTOM LINE: I think the story really lost something in the structure. The writing is gorgeous and I particularly love learning more about this time period, but it was almost like reading the ending of a book and then trying to go back and start from the beginning. Not my favorite Waters novel.
** I do want to say that the audiobook version was fantastic. It was read by Juanita McMahon and she was just excellent!
Pairing Books With Movies: I saw “The Imitation Game” the day after I finished The Night Watch and I couldn’t believe how perfectly the two aligned. Both focus on London during World War II. Both deal with how homosexuality was viewed during the 1940s. I absolutely LOVED the movie and can’t say enough about it. It was wonderfully done and I would highly recommend it.
A bonus recommendation, if you aren’t already watching The Bletchley Circle you should be! The first two seasons of the BBC show is available on Netflix. It’s about a group of women who were code breakers during WWII in London.