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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch (original 2006; edition 2006)

by Sarah Waters

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3,2281121,718 (3.7)425
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. 13
    The Postmistress by Sarah Blake (kiwiflowa)
    kiwiflowa: both have female protagonists and are about the London Blitz during WWII

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English (105)  Dutch (3)  Swedish (3)  French (1)  All languages (112)
Showing 1-5 of 105 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  Petroglyph | Dec 2, 2014 |
I read this book for my bookgroup. I'm so glad that it was for my bookgroup because I probably would have given up otherwise. I have previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger also by Sarah Waters. I really liked them both. I found the 1947 section confusing. You are just dropped into these people's lives without any background. I had difficulty keeping track of the the characters and how they connected. Once I read to the 1944 section things began to make sense. I loved the way in which the characters had connections with each other. The descriptions of 1940's wartime London really made you feel like you were there. The characters were all flawed-but so human. When I finished the book I immediately went back to the first section and read it again to catch all the things I missed. I can't wait to discuss this with my book group this week. I know that this is probably not the book for everyone, but I loved it. ( )
  erica471 | Jan 5, 2014 |
Confused the heck out of me. Unlikeable characters smoking outside their office, remembering war, then it's wartime and havoc and I have no idea what the heck is going on.
Not my cup of tea ( )
  Strawberryga | Dec 28, 2013 |
A very good read. There are five main characters, and their lives are layered together before, during, and after the bombing of London in World War II. The novel works backwards, with each section moving the reader a few more years into the past, and this probably wouldn’t work so well in the hands of a less able writer. In most novels, we are told about the characters’ backgrounds, but in this novel, we live it.

The most interesting of the main characters is Kay, an androgynous ambulance driver during the Blitz. She holds herself aloof from the reader in the beginning, so it takes a while to get her story, but she is the one whose passion shakes you. Her lover Helen is not as sympathetic, but is realistically drawn, as we watch her becoming obsessed with another woman. Two other interwoven plots underline the theme of connection and disconnection.

Waters is really good at atmosphere, and she’s captured the fatalism and the many hungers that must have been part of being a Londoner during WWII. People live in small, dark spaces, and even the streets are claustrophic at night. Everyone seems a little hunted. And when it’s over, it’s not really over.
( )
1 vote astrologerjenny | Apr 24, 2013 |
I had a hard time deciding between 3 and 4 stars. Everything felt so real and the characters so different they actually felt like people I related to - but it did take me a while to get into this one. Mostly I just kept thinking ah lesbians, how fickle you are. ( )
  E.J | Apr 3, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

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.

(summary from another edition)

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