“She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.” (page 195)
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is a novel set in London that chronicles the lives of three women and one man in London during and after WWII. Kay drove an ambulance during the war but now finds herself wandering listlessly around London with little to motivate her. Vivienne is still her soldier’s mistress, despite misgivings and uncertainties about that. Helen jealously and lovingly holds on to her true love Julia. And finally there is Duncan, who has been made strange by events that happened during the war.
This is a novel that is told backwards. It begins in 1947, then falls back to 1944 and finally ends in 1941. As Sarah Waters puts it, she began writing the characters in post-war London only to realize that it did not matter what was going to happen to them, only what had happened. This structure was unique, though it felt a little gimmicky at times, eventually I came to appreciate it. Though there are points in the middle when Waters did not convince me of her tactics, she pulled everything together quite nicely at the end. The third and final section is really where Waters’s brilliance takes hold. We are only given a brief glimpse into what happens in 1941 and that is why it rang so true. It is such a sweet ending to the novel that just makes your heart break because you know exactly how everything is going to pan out.
Everything about this novel is artfully crafted. The characters are perfectly drawn and the setting is enthralling. I will say that this is a book I began reading, but ended up not being interested in. Everything you don’t know or understand in the beginning was not enough to keep me reading, but since I loved Fingersmith so much, I decided to try again on audiobook. I’m really glad I did. Juanita McMahon does a stellar job narrating this tale. She does all of the voices and manages to make them unique. There is also an interview included with Sarah Waters, which was awesome. I think that should be included in every audiobook.
What I love about Sarah Waters’s books is that it usually features people who are easy to label and define with one word: the mistress, the prisoner, the lesbian, the conscientious objector. They are people who are considered on the “fringe” of society, to use a term that is at once offensive and also wholly untrue. The thing about these characters, and the people in real life that we find fit to label, are that it is the exact opposite. They are not on the fringe of society and in fact are human beings, doing their best to live their lives. We may not agree with everything they do, but there is not one person in the world who has not felt alienated by some society. At the same time, The Night Watch is not a book that purposefully tries to get rid of stereotypes, it just exists in a realm where they are out of the question. I’m trying to explain this without giving anything away, so I hope it makes sense and doesn’t sound stupid!
Bottom line: This is a novel about love and about consequences. Though the structure of the novel can lead to some frustration, especially at the beginning, it will absolutely reward you in the end. I recommend it, but not over Fingersmith, Waters’s other novel. Go read that first.
So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile
Did you read and review The Night Watch by Sarah Waters? Let me know and I’ll link to your review in this post!