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.
–Sarah Waters - The Night Watch - c.2006
Starting in 1947 The Night Watch tells the story, in reverse chronology, of various people in and around London during the Blitz. Their stories progress by going backwards in time, so that when we leave them they have it all to experience. Their loves and losses, the air raids and rations, these things are all ahead of the characters. They have yet to become who they were when we met them at the start of the novel.
As for that the story is about? Well, it is about people. People and relationships and just plain living. And the war, but the war is more of a backdrop to the story of Kay, Helen, Julia, Duncan and Viv. They don’t all know one another, but their stories and lives intersect over the course of the book.
I originally picked this up because the only other Sarah Waters’ book I’d read1 was a wonderful creepy read. Perfect for last year’s RIP challenge. I was browsing for something to pick up at the library and came across this. The title sounded vaguely possibly horror/creepy. But it doesn’t fit, not really, so I won’t be counting it as an RIP read this year.
I really enjoyed The Little Stranger but I had problems with the ending. And although I loved the style of writing here, it really is so evocative and so wonderfully descriptive, the story seemed to be almost undone by the manner in which it was told. We slowly get to know these characters, but only through their pasts and how that haunts them, or affects them, and then we learn about those haunting events, but then … nothing. We end at the beginning. I was left feeling as though it was all a bit pointless. I got to know them only to learn why they were, in some cases, broken and bent by the world, but because I was experiencing their lives in reverse it seemed like all I read about was moot because in the end it had yet to happen. Also, and it isn’t a spoiler, because it is from the early chapters, but they are all unhappy and weary and dispirited in so many ways at the start of the book. But that is where they are heading, so no matter how the book ends, because it ends in the past, that it where they will end up. And that isn’t a very uplifting sort of thought.
Not that a book has to end happily ever after, but it would be nice if there was some sort of growth towards happiness. There are hints I think, that steps are being taken, but because I met the characters at the end of the arc, rather than the beginning, it didn’t have the impact on me had I experienced their story in something more linear.
I also found it very difficult to keep the characters straight in my head. I was constantly starting a section and trying to figure out which one was Kay again, and was it Helen that was the sister, or the jealous lover…
I do sometimes have issues with character names though, so that might be a failing on my reading rather than the book itself.
Despite that negativity I think that The Night Watch probably turns into a better book the more you think about it. And a reread would be very rewarding indeed.