Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch
9 August, 2009
It has been a while since I have finished reading a book, closed its covers and felt that I had just been in the presence of genius. I really liked Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but I really loved The Night Watch. The novels are totally different and you can’t really compare them: one is a ghost story set in post-war Britain, the other is a novel about love and relationships set post, during and at the beginning of WWII. They visit the same period in history, but the tone, the subject and the emotions explored are different. The Night Watch is a lesbian love story, and although I’m not a lesbian and don’t generally read much gay fiction, it didn’t matter, I found the story devastatingly beautiful and bittersweet.
I confess that I had previously read Water’s earlier work Fingersmith after seeing an adaptation of Tipping the Velvet on TV several years back, but didn’t really feel an affinity (sorry!) to her work. The novel was readable, very well-written and interesting but didn’t deliver the punch that The Night Watch did.
Waters’ novel follows four characters: Duncan, still twenty six and already an ex-con trying desperately but unable to escape from his past, his sister Viv who is in a relationship with a married man, her colleague Helen who is in a relationship with Julia, a mystery novelist, and Kay who is alone and spends her time walking through London. The novel is in three parts starting in 1947 cutting back to 1944 and finishing in 1941. It is a bold and interesting plot construct, but works beautifully. It keeps the reader wanting to know more about the characters and ties the different stories together by revealing the secrets of the characters’ pasts. To me, and I also think to Waters, it is Kay who is the most intriguing. She is the locus that connects the female characters, loving two of them and helping the third in her time of need. She is a solitary character, exuberant and vulnerable at the same time, searching for love but not quite getting what she wants. You want her to be happy and there is something about the way Waters describes her that makes you fall in love with her.
The Night Watch is a complete novel. Waters’ writing is quietly confident. She doesn’t try to shock the reader, you are automatically drawn into the narrative and you don’t want to leave. She has created a world in which you care deeply about all her characters, with their hopes and dreams and flaws. And after you finish, they stay with you for a while.
When I went to her talk at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank last month, many in the audience wanted to know whether she was going to write a sequel to The Night Watch. Waters said she was thinking of one more novel in that historical period, but that she wouldn’t be revisiting her characters. I hadn’t read the book then, but now that I have, I hope she does.