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The Night Watchby Sarah Waters
Synopses & Reviews
A novel of relationships set in 1940s London that brims with vivid historical detail, thrilling coincidences, and psychological complexity, by the author of the Booker Prize finalist Fingersmith.
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 for her soldier lover, the peculiar thrill of a convict watching the sky ignite through the bars on his window, the hunger of a woman stalking the streets for an encounter, and the panic of another who sees her love affair coming to an end. At the same time, Waters is in absolute control of a narrative that offers up subtle surprises and exquisite twists, even as it depicts the impact of a 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).
"Waters (Fingersmith) applies her talent for literary suspense to WWII-era London in her latest historical. She populates the novel with ordinary people overlooked by history books and sets their individual passions against the chaotic background of extraordinary times. There are Kay, a 'night watch' ambulance driver; her lover, Helen; two imprisoned conscientious objectors, upper-class Fraser and working-class Duncan; Duncan's sister, Viv; Viv's married soldier-lover, Reggie; and Julia, a building inspector — cum — mystery novelist. The novel works backward in time, beginning in 1947, as London emerges from the rubble of war, then to 1944, a time of nightly air raids, and finally to 1941, when the war's end was not in sight. Through all the turmoil on the world stage, the characters steal moments of love, fragments of calm and put their lives on the line for great sex and small kindnesses. Waters's sharply drawn page-turner doesn't quite equal the work of literary greats who've already mapped out WWII-era London. But she matches any of them with her scene of two women on the verge of an affair during a nighttime bombing raid, lost in blackout London with only the light of their passion as a guide." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Over the past several years, English writer Sarah Waters has captured a corner of the market with a genre she created, the 'Victorian lesbian romp.' Beginning with male impersonators in the music-hall world in 'Tipping the Velvet' and continuing with charlatan psychics in 'Affinity,' Waters graduated to the full-blown Victorian sensation novel in the Booker Prize-nominated 'Fingersmith.' It featured... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) — along with swapped babies, misplaced wills, wrongful imprisonment and characters with names like Mrs. Sucksby — a mid-book twist so fiendish that ambushed readers flipped backward and forward as they read, trying to locate terra firma. While some dismissed 'Fingersmith' as a sub-Wilkie Collins pastiche, others felt Waters had managed to write a Victorian entertainment that appeals to a modern audience, primarily through harnessing our sympathies to characters sexually out of step with their society and more in sync with our own more permissible one. It was not always obvious that lesbian protagonists could front best-sellers, yet they have; and in perhaps the clearest indication of establishment acceptance that an English novelist can expect, both 'Tipping the Velvet' and 'Fingersmith' were made into BBC costume dramas. Rather than continue to mine this rich vein, however, with her fourth novel, 'The Night Watch,' Waters has moved outside some of her comfort zones. The novel is set in London during World War II and its aftermath rather than the Victorian period, and it's told in the neutral third person rather than the flashier, sometimes wearying ventriloquism of first-person narration. Waters' style is different, too, dispensing with melodrama to match the rationed, austere wartime lives of her characters with clean spare prose. She still plays structural tricks, though, as she did with the dual narration of 'Fingersmith': 'The Night Watch' is told backward, starting after the war in 1947, jumping back to the bombings of 1944 and finishing mid-Blitz in 1941. The novel follows the stories of four overlapping characters: Kay, who dresses mannishly, wanders London and works as an ambulance driver on the night watch during the bombings; Helen, who lives with her writer lover, Julia; Viv, who is involved with a married soldier; and Duncan, who lives in dubious circumstances with his 'Uncle Horace' and served a prison sentence during the war. Gradually, we uncover connections between the characters: Duncan and Viv are brother and sister; Viv and Helen work in the same postwar dating agency; Helen met her current lover through Kay; Kay once helped Viv in a crisis. Deciphering these connections can be satisfying — in particular, the story behind Viv and Kay's exchange of a gold ring — but at times they feel a little schematic. Coincidence sits more easily within a Dickensian plot than a sober war drama. The center of the book involves a triangular flowchart of unrequited love among Kay, Helen and Julia and the consequences of their expectations and choices. What gives these choices their piquancy is that we already know the outcome and so can wince at each blunder and misunderstanding. In particular, we uncover what has made the enigmatic, heartbroken Kay 'one of those women ... who'd charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over.' All of the narrative strands are eventually pulled together over one evening during the mini-Blitz, with each character's fears surfacing and lives changing as the bombs fall. 'The Night Watch' is especially good at the drama and brutality of these bombings, following Kay and her colleagues as they help the wounded and dying, at times collecting body parts, trying to bring order to the chaos. Waters has made a flawless leap from the Victorian era to World War II. It is far more daunting to write about a well-documented era that many people still remember than a distant period whose details can be blurred and guessed at. Waters has said she wanted to avoid the World War II cliches of rationing cards and women drawing stocking lines up their calves; nor are there American soldiers handing out chewing gum or housewives saving up their rationed butter and eggs to make cakes. Instead, we get a realistic account of the uncomfortable tedium of wartime life, with an accumulation of period detail that feels both authentic and unforced. Everything in daily life is recycled, saved and accounted for, from the constantly mended clothes to the tinned meat and bobby pins Viv gratefully receives as gifts from her lover Reggie. In particular, Waters gets just right the paraphernalia people use as props to maintain some semblance of control when the world is literally falling apart around them. The women constantly reapply face powder and lipstick, determined to keep up their appearance. And everyone smokes, using cigarettes as a currency for small comfort and camaraderie. The backwards structure of 'The Night Watch' is its most intriguing characteristic, and also its Achilles' heel. It creates its own sort of reverse suspense, emphasizing the question of why rather than what happens and making us grow more knowledgeable as the characters become more ignorant. However, it also has a built-in flaw: We see the damage wartime events have caused before we really care enough about the characters to be moved. The postwar section, which by definition is less dramatic, takes up a full third of the book, and it drags somewhat, the way continued rationing must have after the war (rationing did not end in England until 1954). The 1947 section contains myriad lacunae that are only filled by the novel's end. When I finished 'The Night Watch,' I went back and reread the first third; only then did certain comments make sense. For instance, during a break at work, Viv and Helen are discussing the war, and Viv says: 'I used to look forward to peace, to all the things I'd be able to do then. I don't know what I thought those things would be. I don't know what I thought would be different. You expect things to change, or people to change; but it's silly, isn't it? Because people and things don't change. Not really. You just have to get used to them.' Only later, when we know what Viv and Reggie have been through together, do we really understand the import of that sentiment. Similarly, Helen talks about the idea of happiness being rationed so that when you've got some, 'you start thinking about the person who's had to go without so that you can have your portion.' Her comment has far more impact when applied to her relationship with Kay than as an abstract thought, but how many readers will be willing to reread this first, morning-after section to appreciate its subtleties? Despite these shortcomings, 'The Night Watch' is a sophisticated, beautifully written novel by a writer who has reached her maturity. To achieve it, Waters has sacrificed some of the youthful exuberance that made her first three novels such a joy to read. While applauding her talent, I miss the romp. Tracy Chevalier's novel about William Blake will be published early next year." Reviewed by Tracy Chevalier, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A cut below this author's superb earlier books, but very much worth reading." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] sophisticated, beautifully written novel by a writer who has reached her maturity. To achieve it, Waters has sacrificed some of the youthful exuberance that made her first three novels such a joy to read. While applauding her talent, I miss the romp." Tracy Chevalier, The Washington Post
"Readers will be tempted to return to the beginning of Waters' elegant novel after turning the final page to fully appreciate the depth of the characters and their connections to each other." Booklist
"Not as dark or lust-filled as her Victorian novels, The Night Watch is still sexually and psychologically provocative. The characters' non-mainstream lifestyle choices breathe new life into a time-honored but time-worn genre." USA Today
"[C]aptivating — if occasionally turbulent....For all the vigor and intensity of its prose, The Night Watch leaves us with the sense that both the reader's experience and the characters' lives have been manipulated to suit the author's design." David Leavitt, The New York Times Book Review
"Waters freshens the genre by shining a spotlight on those often overlooked by history buffs....In doing so she gives a splendid and intelligent voice not just to society's fringe, but to a tense moment in history that in our post 9/11 world is a little too familiar." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"Waters has a sure touch and an empathic, but not sentimental style....For the reader who values complex characters and a fine elegiac prose, this novel will not disappoint." Rocky Mountain News
Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners — three women and a young man with a past — whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.
Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners-three women and a young man with a past-whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.
About the Author
Sarah Waters is the author of Tipping the Velvet, a New York Times Notable Book; Affinity, for which she won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award; and Fingersmith, which was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and for the Man Booker Prize in 2002. In 2003, she was named one of Granta's best British writers under 40.
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