Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch follows the lives of four very different people during and after World War II. There’s Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war, but now, in 1947, there’s something missing from her life and she wanders the streets of London on her own, a lost and lonely figure. There’s Helen, who is feeling insecure in her relationship with the sophisticated Julia. Then there’s Viv, having problems of her own with her boyfriend Reggie, an ex-soldier. And finally, we meet Viv’s brother Duncan, who was in prison during the war and is still haunted by events in his past.

The story quickly becomes so complex and involved that it would be difficult to tell you any more about the plot without spoiling it. What I can tell you about though, is the structure of the book, which was very unusual. The story begins by introducing us to the characters in 1947, after the war has ended, then moves back in time to 1944, and then in the final section goes back further still to 1941. I both liked this structure and disliked it.

I liked it because of the way it led to some surprising revelations about the characters and their histories. I disliked it because so many storylines were left unresolved. I wanted to know what happened; I wanted to know whether Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan would find happiness. I think this is probably the first Sarah Waters book I’ve read where I really loved and cared about the characters – they all felt so real and believable. But while the book answered some of the questions about the characters’ pasts, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about their futures.

In comparison to Sarah Waters’ other books, this one feels much more subdued and quiet, with an overall mood of sadness. Apart from relating some of the obvious horrors of war which affected society as a whole, there are some heartbreaking moments in the personal stories of all four main characters (the story that affected me the most was probably Viv’s). I also found it interesting to read about the various jobs that were available to women during the war. With so many of the men away fighting, this was a time when it was deemed acceptable for women to do jobs that would previously have been done by the men. Kay, as I mentioned, was an ambulance driver, and there were other women also doing the same work. Helen and Viv were employed in more conventional office jobs, but were still contributing to the war effort with Helen providing support for people who had lost their homes or were in financial difficulties, and Viv working as a typist for the Ministry of Food.

As I’ve come to expect from Sarah Waters’ books, The Night Watch is both well written and well researched. She manages to incorporate an incredible amount of detail into the book, but the detail never overwhelms the story. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys reading about life during World War II and the effects of the war on the lives of ordinary people. But if you loved Fingersmith and are looking for more of the same, I should warn you that this book is about as different from Fingersmith as you could imagine!

Recommended.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

  1. chasing bawa says:

    This is probably my favourite novel by Sarah Waters. I didn’t think the structure of the novel would work but she surprised me. And you’re right, you end up caring deeply about all the characters. Now I just need to go back and re-read Fingersmith!

  2. josjottings says:

    This was the first Sarah Waters I read and I loved it as well. Although it did take me a while to get used to the story going backwards but it worked really well.

    I have Fingersmith on my pile to read so I will get round to that eventually.

  3. Charlie says:

    I like the sound of the structure, because while it could be something to get used to the difference seems something worth reading. I’m not so sure about unresolved plots but I guess with the structure it might have been unavoidable? This does sound a very appealing book.

    • Helen says:

      That’s true – it would have been very difficult to resolve the plots satisfactorily within the backwards structure. And yes, it really appealed to me too. I’m glad it lived up to my expectations!

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