In 1940s London an ambulance driver sits with a woman whose house
has collapsed around her, pinning her by the legs. At the same time
a young man watches his friend slash his own throat, choosing death
over conscription in the army. In the chaos and horror of war, in a
bombed-out city, the lives of several men and women intertwine and
become connected in ways none of them realize. There is loneliness,
desperate romance, longing, love and fear. Such is the setting for
Sarah Waters's latest novel, THE NIGHT WATCH.
At the center of the tale are Kay and Helen, Viv and Duncan. Viv is
in love with an older married soldier. Her brother Duncan works in
a factory and lives with his "uncle" Horace. Helen works in a
matchmakers office and lives with her lover Julia, who is a writer.
Kay is a mysterious figure living above the Christian Science
practitioners office where Duncan frequently escorts Horace. But
just a short time ago Julia was in love with Kay, and Duncan was in
prison. And in one intense and critical moment, Kay and Viv crossed
paths as well.
The connections are not as important as the characters themselves
in Waters's book. And, to distance the characters from the
coincidences and plot, she tells the story in reverse, working her
way from 1947 back to 1941. Waters's prose and plot are neat, all
the pieces fitting together well, but the pace is slow, meditative,
sometimes beautiful and very occasionally laborious. She captures
war-torn London well: the destruction, violence and panic, as well
as the intimacy and hope the residents crave. In many ways it is a
tale about lonely people in extreme circumstances thrown together
by chance, often unaware of themselves as part of anything bigger
than their own lives and the moment they are living in.
The sexuality of Waters's characters, thankfully, is treated as a
matter of course (yet not unimportant). They share with one another
the jealousy, pain, passion, love and hurt they each feel. There
are no easy relationships here; everything is complicated and
emotional, and THE NIGHT WATCH captures the fragility, tautness and
raw emotions perfectly.
Working backwards in time can be problematic for an author, and
Waters is not immune. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of
relationships and situations, and cause and effect is essentially
suspended. Generally though, Waters is skilled enough to keep the
reader entertained and interested. Although not a mystery, this
novel is enigmatic as we follow the characters back in time to
defining moments of transformation, possibility and chance.
THE NIGHT WATCH is very different from Waters's previous Victorian
thrillers, but it is compelling, poignant and a worthwhile read,
especially if you can stick out the slowish start for the rewarding
and more lively middle and end.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 13, 2011
The Night Watch