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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch (original 2006; edition 2006)

by Sarah Waters

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3,2591151,694 (3.7)476
Title:The Night Watch
Authors:Sarah Waters
Info:Riverhead Trade (2006), Edition: X, Paperback, 544 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:GLBTRT, Stonewall Book Awards, Stonewall Honor Books in Literature, 2007

Work details

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (2006)

  1. 50
    Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (withwill)
  2. 10
    Fault Lines by Nancy Huston (jayne_charles)
    jayne_charles: Both employ reverse chronology to tell a story with its roots in WWII
  3. 00
    The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (mrstreme)
  4. 00
    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (ebr_aumkw, kgriffith)
  5. 13
    The Postmistress by Sarah Blake (kiwiflowa)
    kiwiflowa: both have female protagonists and are about the London Blitz during WWII

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Showing 1-5 of 108 (next | show all)
The Night Watch follows the intertwined lives of several people -- mostly women -- in London during and after WWII. All of whom have secrets, or parts of their lives the rest of the world would consider unacceptable: homosexuality, affairs, a stint in jail...

It's an interestingly structured novel, as it's divided into three parts, each of which takes place three years before the previous one, making it a sort of journey backwards through these characters' lives. It's a structure that works remarkably well; I was always interested in what was happening to the characters at the current point in the narrative, but also curious to learn the details of past events and what led them from point A to point B. And the way the novel leaves us with the beginnings of things we've already seen the ending (or at least the evolution) of is rather poignant.

I didn't find it quite as addictively compelling as the other two of Waters' novels that I've read -- Fingersmith and The Little Stranger -- but for a novel that's character- rather than plot-based, it's a remarkably fast read. And I find myself extremely impressed, this time, by how well Waters captures ordinary, realistic, awkward moments, in relationships in sex, and in life. There were a few places where I found that realism almost painful, but always in a good way. ( )
1 vote bragan | Apr 17, 2015 |
I slogged my way through the last 50 pages of [Night Watch] and would put this title in the same box as Penelope Lively's [Consequences] - the boring box. I appreciate Waters attempt to do something different with the structure of the novel - moving from present to past rather than the more common past to present timeline, but it just doesn't work because the writing is not up to the task. As I said earlier this novel is short on plot and long on structure and innovative structure alone cannot carry a novel. In the end the reader has to care about the characters and I just didn't have a feeling for caring for any of them. I only finished the book because I felt that to make an objective judgement and therefore be able to participate in the discussion about Waters and her work I should read the whole thing. I did, but didn't enjoy the experience.

I still have [Fingersmith] in my library and someday I will read it. However, I will not be putting it anywhere near the top of the TBR stack anytime soon. I don't think it is fair to judge a novelist by one book, especially when they have a body of work from which to choose, but I can only hope that other works done by Waters will hold my interest better than this one. I learned from reading three Lively books in one month that a writer with a fair number of works will not display an even quality throughout. For that reason I will reserve final judgement on Waters as an author, but from where I currently stand I think this is an author who is getting publicity for their work based on the outre nature of her subjects and not on the quality of the novel. I also think that there is little new explored in this novel regarding the theme of homosexuality and for me other authors I have read have reached me with a more powerful message on this same subject than Waters managed to do. ( )
1 vote benitastrnad | Feb 23, 2015 |
I found The Night Watch by Sarah Waters one of the most interesting books I have read about London during the war. The book follows an assorted group of people and drifts back and forth in time from 1947 to 1944 and finally to the catalyst year of 1941. These Londoners are loosely connected and we follow them through their desires, their guilt, their regrets. Although many of the characters are gay this is not a story about ones’ sexual preference, rather that of people trying to live their lives in a London that has been changed by war.

With Sarah Waters, one must be patient, she is wordy and her books are long and could probably do with some tighter editing, but the reward is there, a gem of a story just waiting to be discovered. This author writes beautifully, and has the ability to move her readers while she also educates. I can’t promise that the reader will find many characters that are truly likeable, but they are all very much alive and living lives that engaged my attention thoroughly. I know there are many that find her work a real slog to get through, but I really relished her unique point of view and enjoyed puzzling this story out.

The Night Watch is an historical novel that is rich in period details and with a few strokes of her pen she is able to place her readers on the dark streets of London during the air raids or at a government Ministry working in a typing pool. The story is complex, filled with twists and rather sad. At the end of the story, which is really the beginning, it’s almost impossible not to start in again and read the beginning, which is really the end. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Feb 13, 2015 |
This is my fourth Waters novel, but it deviated in a lot of ways from what I've come to expect from her books. There's no vibe of gothic mystery, instead it's more historical fiction. Set in London during World War II, the story follows four main characters, Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. Like the other three Waters novels that I’ve read, it’s extremely well written. The setting is beautifully described; the characters are well-drawn, etc., but my problem with this book lay in the plotting and structure.

We start after the war is done and everyone settled back into their lives in 1947. We meet our main characters and they constantly make vague references to things that happened during the war. Later we travel back to 1944 when the city was being bombed to bits by the Germans. Kay is an ambulance driver and rescues people after their homes are bombed. These scenes were some of my favorite in the book. You could feel the fear and smell the smoke as London fell into ruin around its loyal citizens.

Kay’s girlfriend Helen is a less interesting character and one that seems indecisive about what she wants from life. Then there’s Viv, a bright young woman who has gotten caught up in a relationship with a married man named Reggie. The final character is Duncan, a young man serving time in prison. We rotate between the lives of each character, learning tiny bits about how they got where they are, but there are always unanswered questions.

The story moves slowly at first and it took me a while to get into it. The author leaves us intentionally in the dark on quite a few things that she mentions in the first portion of the book. As the novel progresses things are slowly revealed. You supposed to hang in there and trust that it will all be explained, but in the end I never felt like I got the whole story.

By structuring the book in reverse chronological order you remove a huge amount of suspense. When we move back to 1944 and then to 1941 at the very end, we already know who lives and dies and who ends up together. There are obviously pros and cons to this unique method or storytelling, but it does take the suspense out of certain events.

A few of my issues with the book…

At the end we find out that Helen was already almost killed in a bomb blast. If that’s true, why on earth would she refuse to go to the shelter during future bombings? I would think that she would be the first one in the shelter the second the alarm sounded!

Also, Duncan and his friend took suicide ridiculously nonchalantly. It really bothered me that only one of the boys wanted to kill himself it took him about 30 seconds to convince Duncan to join his suicide pact. It was like a big game to them and I can't imagine two teenage boys saying, “What do you want to do this today? I don't know let's kill ourselves. Ok, sounds great!” Also, did I miss something, where it’s explained why Duncan decided to move in with Mr. Mundy?
Viv’s story made a little bit more sense when you see how she met Reggie, except she knew from the get-go that he was on leave to go see his wife and their new baby. My real problem with her wasn't even how they met. What I didn’t get was their ending. He abandons her when she’s in the middle of a medical emergency and about to die. And yet we see in their 1947 section that they are still together with no explanation. That made no sense to me.


BOTTOM LINE: I think the story really lost something in the structure. The writing is gorgeous and I particularly love learning more about this time period, but it was almost like reading the ending of a book and then trying to go back and start from the beginning. Not my favorite Waters novel.

** I do want to say that the audiobook version was fantastic. It was read by Juanita McMahon and she was just excellent! ( )
  bookworm12 | Feb 6, 2015 |
This book struck me as memorable for three reasons.

Firstly, the research and the feel of the setting and prose. These were excellent: Waters managed to blend her historical research unobtrusively with an unfamiliar (for me) setting -- London between 1941 and 1947 -- with interesting characters. The language felt about right for the period, too. So well done there.

Secondly, the relationships. Since [The night watch] is not so much historical fiction as a serious literary look at relationships and the uncertainties surrounding them, these are what drives the book. [The night watch] presents three snapshots of a group of loosely-related characters set against the background of the London Blitz, and details the evolution of their relationships over time. It does so by presenting the snapshots in chronologically reversed order, starting in 1947 and moving backwards, first to 1944 and then to 1941. Inhabiting these settings are a lovely set of 3D characters whose relationships with each other (or with each other’s partners, or lack thereof) are solid pieces of perspicacious fiction. The way in which Waters writes about the tedium and excitement that comes with emotional attachments between stressed-out people who feel hesitant to reach out is masterful. Her characters’ reflections on maintaining friendships, illicit romantic entanglements or dreary and almost perfunctory adultery kept me interested through most of the novel.

Third, the most notable narrative technique is of course the backwards-told fashion in which these relational ruminations are presented. This is where my problems with this book lie, and since they are such obvious ones, it makes me wonder whether I have overlooked something, or whether I came to this with the wrong expectations.

Normally, what I expect from a story told backwards is that each successive part makes me reevaluate the earlier (but chronologically later) sections, serving me alternate interpretations of the same events, unsuspected but plausible character motivations, or other types of twists and surprises. And this book does none of that, leaving me wondering why Waters even considered this backwards approach.

There really is very little point in telling the story backwards: in the first portion, we get to know a set of characters in their current constellation, with hints at and conversations about previous relationships and ensuing reconfigurations and complications -- elopements, breakups, serving a prison sentence for being gay. When subsequent sections describe those earlier events and character configurations, we already know about them. And sometimes that works: realizing that characters stick together despite or thanks to harrowing experiences they went through earlier in the war does gain you a new appreciation for the way their relationships play out a few years later, with or without the emotional war of attrition that was the Blitz. But as a reader, I was at no point forced to reevaluate interpretations or to cast chronologically later events in an entirely new light; the book merely went about its business of dutifully filling in the details of the framework established in the previous portion. And this happens twice!

As a result, some of the things that are clearly presented as surprises or twists in later chapters are so obvious that Waters’ tiptoeing around unnamed characters’ identities, or delaying the arrival of a new love interest becomes roll-your-eyes annoying. It’s true, later chapters do delve extensively into the whys and hows of the various reconfigurations only briefly touched upon in the 1947 section (and like I said, Waters is very good at writing flawed humans dealing with their ties to other, equally flawed, people), but because we already know how the various relationships are about to be strained or established, Waters is playing coy precisely when she needn’t beat around the bush. And that makes the few remaining “mysteries” (such as the business with the ring, or the actual circumstances of Duncan’s transgression) stand out all the more as narrative techniques -- intentionally unexplained tidbits ostentatiously introduced to serve as structural devices and to set up an obligatory pay-off.

And that is a pity. Waters can write, and write well, and it’s obvious she’s good at observing people and drawing convincing characters with believable motivations to populate her well-researched setting. But the unnecessary backwards chronology and the conspicuous plot twists that weren’t kept on pulling me out of the book. Frankly, I think I’d enjoyed this book more if it had been told chronologically, without those elements that kept pulling me out of the narrative. In the end, then, [The night watch], as my first Sarah Waters novel, left me with the impression of a high-level historical fiction that has aspirations to higher literary quality that it can’t quite pull it off. ( )
1 vote Petroglyph | Dec 2, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sarah Watersprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Acqua, Giancarlo Dell'Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Adler, SigalTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Almazán, LauraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
中村有希訳Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bützow, HeleneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bingül, FigenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brandt, BillCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Camp, Marion Op denTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Danielsson, UllaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Defossé, AlainTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dewey, AmandaDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
藍涓Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gawlik-Małkowska, MagdalenaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Houstrup, VibekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Κορτώ, ΑύγουστοςTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parés, NúriaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Puchalská, Barbora PungeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Voss, AndreaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vujačić, PetarTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, GabrieleCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zulaika, JaimeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Сафронова, АлександраTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Lucy Vaughan
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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.
"But, isn't it funny -- we never seem to love the people we ought to."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 159448905X, Hardcover)

Sarah Waters, whose works set in Victorian England have awards and acclaim and have reinvigorated the genres of both historical and lesbian fiction, returns with novel that marks a departure from nineteenth century and a spectacular leap forward in the career of this masterful storyteller.

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit liasons, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of Londoners: three women and a young man with a past-whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in ways that are surprising not always known to them. In wartime London, the women work-as ambulance drivers, ministry clerks, and building inspectors. There are feats of heroism, epic and quotidian, and tragedies both enormous and personal, but the emotional interiors of her characters that Waters captures with absolute and intimacy.

Waters describes with perfect knowingness the taut composure of a rescue worker in the aftermath of a bombing, the idle longing of a young woman her soldier lover, the peculiar thrill convict watching the sky ignite through the bars on his window, the hunger a woman stalking the streets for encounter, and the panic of another who sees her love affair coming end. At the same time, Waters is absolute control of a narrative that offers up subtle surprises and exquisite twists, even as it depicts the impact grand historical event on individual lives.

Tender, tragic, and beautifully poignant, The Night Watch is a towering achievement that confirms its author as "one of the best storytellers alive today" (Independent on Sunday).

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:39 -0400)

Set in 1940s London, this story follows four characters - Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan - as they deal with their everyday lives, set against the backdrop of World War Two.

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