Friday, June 24, 2011

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

"The woman's coat and hat had gone, and her hair was loose about her face; the evening-gloves were smooth and unmarked, still, on her dangling arms.  Her silk dress, silvered by the moonlight, was pooled about her on the pavement as though she were curtseying, but the flesh of her bare back bulges where the iron pressed at it from within.
'The last set of railings in the street,' said the warden, as he took Kay and Mickey down the area steps.  'What luck was that, eh?"

Through Kay and Mickey we experience the devastation of the blitz while buildings still burn, bodies lie in the street, bricks are falling from buildings left with gaping holes and the percussion of bombs in the distance reminds us that the moment still holds danger.  These women are part of a team whose job it is to deliver first-aid or retrieve body parts in the aftermath of an air raid.  Kay is often mistaken for a young man with her slicked hair, dungarees and cuff links but it's clothing she feels comfortable in as a butch lesbian.

Waters has written The Night Watch in three parts, working her way back in time through 1940s London.  Beginning with 1947, we meet the central characters and are teased with secrets from their past.  Viv and Duncan are brother and sister, she is having an affair with a married serviceman and Duncan has been left shell-shocked but not by an enemy bomb.  Involved in a terrifying incident he serves time in prison and has to endure the disappointment in his father's eyes during visits.  Other men's boys spent the war fighting for their country while his spends his days as the topic of whispers amongst neighbours.  Helen is Julia's lover but their past is linked with Kay's and while on the surface all seems well there is an undercurrent of doubt, suspicion and jealousy.

Nothing too small escapes Waters' eye for detail such as describing the bite marks on a cup that define it absolutely as belonging to a child.  There are also plenty of pots of tea, sips from whisky flasks, gas rings and blackout curtains to evoke the atmosphere.  And humourous moments such as a soldier mentioning to another how his girlfriend would somehow manages to turn her ankle whenever they passed a jeweller's window are welcome to lighten the mood.  The paragraph I quoted and two other scenes were absolutely gripping and had my own house been crumbling around me I don't think I could have put this book down.

The Night Watch is clever and once I finished it I immediately wanted to turn back to the first page as the beginning of the book is actually its summation.  Things you read early on now make sense, we know what makes the characters tick and their secrets have been revealed. 

If you want to experience the Blitz in literature I hold books such as Vere Hodgson's Few Eggs and No Oranges, Marghanita Laski's To Bed with Grand Music or Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven in the highest favour.  But Waters didn't embarrass herself with this one, in fact, it was quite entertaining and well worth the time spent reading it.


  1. Have wanted to read this for some time after reading my first and only Waters novel, The Little Stranger. And it is for a talent she has that you bring up here - the attention to the smallest details that often tell the story in those small moments.

  2. once I finished it I immediately wanted to turn back to the first page as the beginning of the book is actually its summation. Things you read early on now make sense, we know what makes the characters tick and their secrets have been revealed.

    Oh, yes, I know just what you mean! I loved the way this book was constructed. Great review!

  3. Very interesting Darlene. That first image is incredibly haunting.

    I have only read one Waters novel - Fingersmith - and I did enjoy it, but I have become a bit sniffy about her for some reason, perhaps because she got very popular. I must try some of her more recent novels - you have intrigued me with this! Though I must say you can never beat a novel actually written during the I know you will agree.

  4. The blitz and the war as a whole must have been terrible to live through. It seems awful for us now just thinking about it but imagine what it must have been like facing that everyday and also not knowing how it was all going to end, we even have the benefit of knowing what the outcome was, for those people nothing was certain.

  5. And now you have made me want to go back and read this one again. I have to agree though, that the best books about the period were written at the ttime or soon after.

    Seeing the Persephones you mention makes me wonder if you have read Barbara Noble's Doreen? It was the first of the WWII Persephones that I read, and I fell in love.

  6. Frances, We really enjoyed The Little Stranger at our house and mulled that one over for quite awhile. Hopefully I have inspired you to pick up The Night Watch sooner rather than later!

    Laura, Why thank you! At first I didn't like the idea of going backwards like that but Waters won me over and it was brilliant.

    bookssnob, I so agree with you! But every once and awhile we have to enjoy the work of someone who is still alive! I love that expression 'a bit sniffy' and will have to find a way to work that into a conversation and soon.

    Rob, Absolutely! I have to remind myself not to romanticize that era, it wasn't all Vera Lynn sing-alongs and chats over the wall. Sitting in a mock bomb shelter at the Imperial War Museum in 2009, smelling of cordite, while a recording played of screaming and the sound of bombs exploding was pretty scary! I would definitely NOT want to endure that in real life for anything.

    FleurFisher, I don't have a copy of that Persephone yet. It was in the running a couple of times and then I would choose something else but I must pick up a copy when I'm in London this September. Thanks, Jane!

  7. I thought Night Watch certainly held its ground in the genre of WWII fiction. Like you I have read Vere Hodgson's book but now I have added to my Persephone wishlist the Laski and Panter Downes you mentioned. I loved Laski's Little Boy Lost! And I notice Fleur Fisher has mentioned Doreen - my Persephone wishlist just keeps growing!

  8. Samantha, I know the feeling well. A little spare time, the Persephone catalogue and a pen is all it takes and before you know it you're on The Book Depository website.

    Little Boy Lost was stunning!

  9. This is my favourite of Sarah Waters' novels (although I still have to read Tipping the Velvet). I thought the structure of the novel worked really well and kept you wanting to know more about the characters. Really glad you enjoyed it!

  10. chasingbawa, I haven't read Tipping the Velvet or Affinity yet AND I'm sure a new title can't be far off. We have some catching up to do! Thanks for stopping by!

  11. I loved this one, too. It has such an unusual format that you feel like you should be starting at the back of the book and reading forward! I'm glad you enjoyed it--she does detail really well, doesn't she?

  12. Darlene, did you know there was a TV adaptation that was on here this week? So I imagine you'll be able to see it before too long. It was very good, very true to the book as I recall it - though it seems ages since I read it. By the way, did you know that Tipping the Velvet starts off in Whitstable, only a bus ride away from where your daughter will be in Canterbury? Thought that might spur you to read it (though actually I prefer Affinity!)