The Novels of Sarah Waters
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The Night Watch
[A] wonderful novel
Waters is almost Dickensian in her wealth of description and depth of character.”Chicago Tribune
Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londonersthree women and a young man with a pastwhose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.
||September 27, 2006|
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61 of 64 found the following review helpful:
Women in WartimeNov 23, 2006
By Roger Brunyate
"We never seem to love the people we ought to; I can't think why." These words, spoken by one of the central characters near the end of this sensitive book, might well serve as the epigraph for the whole. As a love story, it is passionate and true, but untidy because it is true; the truth and awkwardness go hand in hand, both beautifully reconciled by Sarah Waters' unusual narrative method. The novel traces the changing emotional relationships among a group of women (plus a few men) whose lives intersect in London during the two main periods of the Blitz, in 1941 and 1944. So completely do we get to know these characters that it is tempting to talk about them as though already conversant with their backgrounds. But one of the joys of Sarah Waters' storytelling is the manner in which she reveals information piece by piece, starting after the War and working backwards. It would be a shame to spoil this pleasure for a new reader.
But one can at least quote the opening sentence: "So this," said Kay to herself, "is the sort of person you've become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord's door." The year is 1947, and Kay appears as a casualty of war, living alone in a declining area of South London, in a poky flat in the house of a faith healer. Yet we shall soon glimpse a different Kay: a woman of elegance and style, performing almost daily acts of heroism in her wartime work, and responsible for many of the epiphanies of grace which illuminate this story of a dark period.
The book has three sections: the first, set in 1947, is 175 pages in the paperback edition; the second, set in 1944, is the longest at 290 pages; the third, set in 1941, is only 50 pages. Reading it is rather like going to the movies in those days, picking up in the middle of the feature, then watching the program round again to discover how it all began. It has the advantage of heading towards two different kinds of ending simultaneously: there is the ending of each chronological section, and there is the ending of the book as a whole. The endings in the 1947 section are mostly hopeful but never pat, all utterly believable, and untidy as true things generally are. This is mostly the case with the 1944 section as well. Two of the three short episodes in the concluding 1941 section, however, are bright as a button; descriptions of how the characters first met, they are crisp and compact because they shine with possibility unshaded by subsequent events. The third 1941 episode describes an event that has been glimpsed as a shadow over in the life of the main male character, Duncan, now brought into the light for the first time. If there had been any doubt as to the wisdom of Waters' narrative method, the bracing cocktail of these last fifty pages triumphantly dispels it.
But no matter how she chooses to tell it, I would read any Sarah Waters novel for her portrayal of women. There is a reality to these women that is rare even among female writers. We share the author's understanding of their social lives, their work, their friendships deep or casual, their emotional needs, even their bodies. It is no surprise that most of the relationships in this love story are lesbian ones. But I found none of the difficulty I encountered with the homosexuality in Alan Hollinghurst's THE LINE OF BEAUTY (another recent Man Booker finalist), because the relationships that Waters describes are all emotional ones first, and her rare descriptions of physical sex are the natural outcome of an intimacy of the feelings. Even reading as a man, I don't find myself watching the characters from outside (still less with any prurient fascination), but experiencing with them as I recall the emotional roller-coaster of my own youth.
I called this a love story, and it is. But looking back at it, I feel it is very much more a friendship story, set against a remarkably convincing portrayal of a particular time and place. Perhaps wartime pressures both highlight simple acts of kindness and make them more necessary. There are many such things in this book, extending to the minor characters as well as the major ones, and they give a richness to the intertwined lives that are portrayed in it. When these connections between one human being and another lead to love, it is almost irrelevant whether that love is emotional or physical, hetero- or homosexual. For this, as its unusual form makes clear, is a novel about beginnings, emotional journeys, and stops along the way. It is not to be confined by mere endings.
78 of 90 found the following review helpful:
Night WatchApr 17, 2006
By K. Freeman
An interestingly structured account of several characters in 1940's London.
Waters starts with the present and works backward, illuminating the present situation, which appears innocuous and even shallow at first, by showing what happened in the past. The present gains depth, and even a touch of horror, as we see the jealous lover who betrayed someone to be with the person whose absences she now violently suspects, and the continued relationship between a woman and the man who abandoned her as she fought for her life.
It's an interesting plot structure, and the fact that it naturally lessens tension is somewhat made up for by the ugly depths that we learn lie behind our initial picture. Dramatic individual scenes keep the immediate interest level fairly high.
Having loved all three of Waters' previous novels, though, I was disappointed by this. It was impossible to sympathize with most of the characters, not because they were weak or venal (they were) but because they were boring. Their concerns seemed mundane and their personalities unremarkable. In addition, strangely precious dialogue had a jarring effect and made it hard to take the narrative seriously at times.
26 of 28 found the following review helpful:
Lack of a plot sets this story adriftMay 19, 2007
By Rebecca Huston
After reading Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith I knew that I had to go hunt up her other works. This time instead of the Victorian world, the setting is that of World War II, when the bombs of the Blitz are shattering London. Waters takes the lives of a handful of people, then explores the shifting relationships between them all.
The novel opens in the year 1947. London is still mostly a ruin two years after the bombs have stopped falling. The opening scene is of a woman standing at her window, smoking; she is watching as two men come walking up to the house where she lives. One is young, the other much older and clearly not doing well. Downstairs from Kay is a Christian Scientist healer, who views that physical ailments are nothing more than the burdens that the mind carries, and uses a soothing monolog of prayer and exhoration to give relief to his patients. Kay, in the meantime, wanders the streets of London at night, nattily dressed in men?s clothing, looking -- but looking for what?
Viv and Helen run a matchmaking agency, with some success, after the war. It's not exactly satisfying work, but it does help. Helen is involved with Julia, a writer who is on the verge of making it big, and Viv is entangled with Reggie, a married man, another relationship that is evidently going nowhere.
And finally there is the relationship between Viv and her brother Duncan -- who is none other than the young man that Kay spotted from her window. We discover that Duncan has a very troubled past, and a time in prison during the war, troubles that have left him deeply disturbed and his family in shreds.
The next segment of the novel is set three years earlier, during the last devastating bombing of London. Kay is an ambulance driver who works at night, when the Germans drop their incendiaries and bombs, seeking to break the British. Kay has her circle of friends, fellow drivers and medics, and gets a surge of vitality from her work. And she has the opportunity to be with her lover, Helen, cherishing and adoring her. Yes, the same Helen who is working with Viv in the earlier part of the novel.
Viv, for her part, is working in a government ministry, trying to help those people who have been bombed out of their own homes. We see that she was still involved with Reggie, even though she knows that he has a wife and children tucked away in the country. But she holds on, hoping that somehow things will become permanent with her lover.
Duncan is in prison, a ghastly spot in London called Wormwood Scrubs. As to why he is in there, we haven't found out yet, but it's a horrible place to be. When the bombs fall near the prison turns into a mixture of fear and elation, with the inmates either screaming or cheering on the bombs. The few visits that Duncan gets from his family are grim ordeals, with only Vivien giving him any sort of comfort, and even then, it's not much.
Helen, in turn, is finding that she has more than just a passing interest in Julia, a former lover of Kay's, and it's threatening to overturn her own relationship with the vibrant, risk taking Kay.
The final segment is set in 1941, and the reader, if they've made it this far, will discover how everyone in the previous two parts of the novel acquired all of their baggage. I'm not going to reveal much more of the story here, but it does give several very surprising twists.
Instead of creating a novel with a past, present and future, or indeed any sort of plot beyond survival, Waters has given us a story of relationships. We're treated to vignettes, and characters ruminating over their past choices, and the fears of what is to come. While I certainly did find them interesting, I had a hard time feeling in touch with the various players in this story. They are just, well, surviving, a few are trying to pick up the pieces of their past, but there isn't any sort of passion here -- everyone is going through the motions, but each one is adrift in the ruins, as it were.
If you are looking for the same sort of pacing and twists that Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith had, they are not here. Indeed, the hardest thing that I had in this story was the complete lack of plot. With placing the first part in 1947, we already know that most of the people are going to be surviving World War II, and the bombing of London, so there's one big twist gone, we already know that various lovers have broken up and hooked up with someone else, and so forth. So the only thing really left is the internal, emotional world of the characters, and the vivid depiction of a society coming apart.
It's this description of a bombed, terrified London that makes the book worth reading. While it's not a particularly good novel, it's these striking word-paintings that make the story worth wading through. Sadly though, it doesn't save the book from being more than a three star read, and rather disappointing. While the life-styles of the characters and their relationships are controversial -- most of the women are caught up in lesbian affairs, Viv and Reggie are adulterers, and Duncan exists in a lonely, self-made hell -- even here, there's nothing much to really relate to.
It's a pity, as Sarah Waters is a damn fine writer, and can do much better than this. So, to sum up, it's an average read, but hard to follow in this story written in reverse. If you are particularly interested in daily life in London during the war, or in the topic of forbidden relationships, I suppose this would do. But I can't give it an honest recommend to read this one either. It all depends on your own taste in reading.
20 of 22 found the following review helpful:
Very good, but not her best.Mar 29, 2006
i'll keep this short: the story is interesting, the characters are well crafted, the descriptions have depth, but there is no heart to this story. the first thing that struck me is her language - in previous novels she stunned me with her words. this is much more bland. maybe its because of the time period and events that she is portraying, but i miss reading sentences that rocked me like a blow. if you are a fan, it is a must read. if you are new to her, try her first three so you can see her at her best.
43 of 53 found the following review helpful:
Exquisite Masterpiece...Sep 06, 2006
By K. Johnson
Wow! I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I picked up this lengthy novel, but my time was well spent. I read the unabridged version of the book on CD in my car during my long commute. It took a long time, but I found myself actually looking forward to traffic jams so I could sit in the car and listen longer. I even found myself sitting in my garage once I got home because I couldn't turn it off.
Waters introduces a wonderful cast of characters that I won't go into too much here because other reviewers have already done so, but a few notes are warranted.
My favorite character is Viv. She struggles with much as a young woman in love with a married soldier during the war. Her brother, Duncan, is also a constant source of worry for this enigmatic woman. She has my utmost respect in most areas, but has my pity in others.
Duncan started off as my favorite character, but I lost interest in his antics about midway through the book. His relationships with Mr. Mundy and Frasier are deep and disturbed.
Helen is a pathetic character you can't help but like. She's torn between Kay and Julia. She cheats on one and is cheated on by the other.
Kay is a lover, plain and simple. When she loves you, it's undeniable. At the same time it's smothering.
Julia is the aristocratic writer who is the epitome of "free" artist. She's my least favorite character because she seems extremely shallow and uncaring.
I appreciate the method Waters uses with timing in the book. She starts at the end and ends at the beginning. I was a little distracted at first because of this, but after I got recalibrated with each time shift I realized it was a great approach.
I read a lot. This was one of the best, highest quality books I've read in a long time. It reminded me of many of the literature classics I read in high school in college (yes, that was a long time ago, but I still remember!).
Don't let the sheer size of this one scare you. It's well worth the time required to get from front cover to back cover. Extremely highly recommended.
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