Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Ah where to begin Sarah Waters? Where to begin? 'The Night Watch' is my favourite sort of book, an ensemble drama of sorts, random characters with connections that become "unveiled" as the story progresses. And I think this is one of the best of those I have read.

'The Night Watch' revolves around 4 main characters and is set between 1941 and 1947. Kay drove an ambulance during the war but has become a ghost of sorts since, wandering the streets in men's clothing, drifting. Helen is a kind girl working in a post-war dating agency who deals with issues of past betrayal. In this office works Vivien, a glamour girl, who continues to pursue an affair with a married soldier she met during the war. The final character is Duncan, Vivien's brother, who served the final years of the war in prison.

This book works backwards, a fantastic narrative technique if done well, as it has been here. The story begins in 1947 and travels backwards, slowly and ever so enticingly revealing how each character arrived in their current circumstance. I found this book utterly heartbreaking at times. This book explores World War II from the perspective of London civilians in a realistic and non-apologetic manner, yet allows it to be the setting for the story, not the basis of the plot. The story involved air raids, rationing and gruesome tragedy without making it about this, the focus was still on the characters and their experiences whether they were war-related or not. 

Sarah Waters is so wonderful at character development, they are so real, vulnerable. This book explores homosexuality during the war, being a woman during the war, imprisonment during the war, love and loss during the war, without being about the war. She describes the normal human emotions that are somewhat heightened by the stress and tension of this time.
She felt capable of anything! She finished her coffee, her mind racing. She was thinking of all the things she could do. She could give up her job! She could leave Streatham, take a little flat all to herself! She could call up Reggie! Her heart jumped. She could find a telephone box, right now. She could call him up and tell him - what? That she was through with him, for ever! That she forgave him; but that forgiving wasn't enough... The possibilities made her giddy. Maybe she'd never do any of these things. But oh, how marvellous it was, just to know that she could!
Haven't you felt just that? That exact feeling? I could never have put that into words. And such simple things in this book that made me ache for the characters, Helen's fear of rejection when her lover doesn't come home one night, and the despair and vulnerability...
"I had to have dinner all on my own. I stood right here, at the bloody oven, and ate it with my apron on."
 I actually cried then. Oh the humiliation of love and loneliness.

This was a fantastically poignant and moving book. I felt the adventure of air raids, the despair of loss, the excitement of new love, the hopelessness of war. I want to read it again, but the true joy in reading this book is not knowing where it is going. Once I told an elderly lady that I was reading 'Anna Karenina' and she said "How wonderful! I long to read that for the very first time again." So go and read this book, and enjoy it for the 'very first time', it is wonderful.

Have you read this? What did you think?


Nymeth said...

This is my second favourite Sarah Waters novel, surpassed only by Fingersmith. It completely broke my heart (the very ending! ouch), but not in a bad way. I'm so glad you loved it too!

Elise said...

Oh Nymeth, I completely agree, the ending really got me too... It was so beautifully tragic!!

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read this one, but it is high in my TBR. Fingersmith is one of my top 10 books, so I have high hopes for it. It is great to see that you enjoyed it so much!

Karen said...

This is my absolute favourite Sarah Waters book - your review has made me want to read it all over again.