Margaret's Reviews > The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
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it was ok
bookshelves: historical-fiction, wwii, culled, authors-vw, 2008-read

Waters starts her tale of WWII London in 1947, introducing several characters and showing us their situations: Kay, who's still obsessed with wartime and can't connect with anyone in the present; Helen and Julia, whose love affair is threatened by Julia's possible infidelity; Viv, who's involved with a married man; and Viv's brother Duncan, whose life is changed when he meets again the man he shared a prison cell with. Then Waters works backwards: having shown us where these characters are after the war, she goes back to wartime to show us how they got there, with the main part of the book occurring in 1944 and a much shorter section at the end in 1941.

The wartime setting is excellent; Waters obviously did her research, and she creates a very convincing atmosphere, particularly when her characters are out in the streets of London. As far as the unusual plot structure goes, Waters is clever about how much she reveals as she goes along, so that I never felt that I already knew what had happened. It does feel a little manipulative, as the characters refer to earlier events circuitously, so that the reader doesn't get too much information, but it's an interesting experiment.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite work for me. This was partly because I didn't find the characters all that engaging, and partly because once I finished the book, I would have liked to know what happened after the 1947 section, which is left very open-ended. Having been led back through the characters' lives to find out how they got where they were, I'd have liked a little more closure as to where they were going, too. It was worth reading, but it's definitely my least favorite of Waters' books and I doubt I'll read it again.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
December 8, 2010 – Shelved
December 8, 2010 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
December 8, 2010 – Shelved as: wwii
December 8, 2010 – Shelved as: culled
January 29, 2012 – Shelved as: authors-vw
July 7, 2017 – Shelved as: 2008-read

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message 1: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell I totally can't say anything profound, because for some reason I've been scatty and muzzy for days, but yeah, the setting was just amazing. And it really struck me the way the whole story is like an excavation itself, down to that first moment when the two women meet, digging back through the rubble of time. It's almost like a metaphor for the whole book or something -- or the storytelling -- I thought I'd read in an interview or essay (the intro to the book even?) that she was really trying to write about post-war Britain but she had to dig back into the war, and people had to dig back into their psyches, too, they were so reluctant to talk about it. It's like the whole book is an act of recovery -- Duncan and his friend, Viv and Kate's ring, &c.

The other thing that interested me about the book was that I didn't really like a single one of the protagonists but she kept my interest going until the very end (this also happened with Little Stranger; never have I wanted to so drown a narrator in a bucket). Kay was rather self-deceiving, Helen was impossible, I wanted to drag Viv forward into the sixties where she could get some decent contraception, Julia was an unashamed bitch, and Duncan was sort of a cipher. (And that ending, with him going through the window. What? And I never got why he went to prison, either. Attempted suicide? Or murder?) -- Oh wait, I did like Mickey, who was pretty entirely marginal. Her narrative drive is amazing, and of course I loved the surroundings and details.

I also find it remarkable that in nearly every review I've seen of the book nobody mentioned the completely harrowing illegal abortion and its aftermath -- which ought to be required reading on the pro-choice side, like the stupid "I can't wait to see the sun and grass and flowers" pamphlet. Everyone was all more "ooh bombers and mash WHOO LESBIANS." And the scene in the ambulance with Kate and Viv was real horror. But the reviewers passed over it very quickly, if it came up at all.


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