I haven’t read any of Sarah Waters’ works previously, though I did get about 20 pages into The Fingersmith before giving up as the language was just really difficult for me to get into (I have seen The Handmaiden a few times already anyways, and do love that movie a lot). But I watched the film adaptation of The Little Stranger recently and thought it might be worth a shot! And The Night Watch sounded interesting enough: the interwoven lives, secrets, identities, and shames of various people set within the backdrop of WWII London, living their everyday lives that aren’t necessarily tied up directly in the war in terms of fighting like you may find in a lot of WWII historical fiction, but their experiences and how things play out are still so inherently tied into this cultural context, showing the effect on lives beyond the front lines.
The twist in The Night Watch, however, is that we begin after the war has ended, seeing the point of view of four different individuals who appear to be somewhat adrift and lost at this time in their lives; from there, the novel goes back in time to see just how things played out to get them to this position they are in now, and also shows us more ways in which these characters lives have been tied together and influencing one-another all this time. The major characters are as follows:
Kay, a woman who wanders aimlessly through the city, haunted by the war wherein she worked as an emergency responder during air raids with her friend, Mickey.
Helen, a woman who works for a lonely hearts service after the war, and feels a strain in her relationship with a woman named Julia, who she had become involved with during the war.
Vivian, a co-worker of Helen who has a strained relationship with her family, and is secretly involved in an affair with a married man.
Duncan, Vivian’s young brother who was recently released from prison after the war, and now lives in a peculiar situation with an elderly man.
The setup of the novel in showing the place the characters end up after the war at first (only to then show the leadup afterwards) works to an extent, but ultimately in the final step back in time I thought there would be more payoff or punch to it: most of what occurs after the biggest section in the middle is already known, or not of much consequence in the tieback to the beginning where we first read about the end. The stories, however, are engaging and personal. They show a secret and quiet sort of life, that is heartbreaking and you would just want to scream about, but keep hidden out of necessity. Yet, despite all of the sadness and loneliness permeating the novel overall, there is still a bit of hope to be found, not at the end, but at the end of the beginning which is the end. This is another reason why perhaps the twist or defining quirk of the novel’s setup only works to an extent: after the first section I wanted to know what happened next, not what happened before: while very engaging, like I said, sometimes it’s great to just be dropped into the middle of a person’s story at whatever place in time there are at, and see how they move through it.
But in the end, The Night Watch was a good read, and I found myself caring for these characters, despite all the decisions they made, due to the complications of their situations that were out of their control: the context and setting really does play a huge role in how the novel plays out, and it is obvious that Waters put a lot of research into creating a great sense of reality to our understanding of the characters, their situations, and the overall atmosphere of everything.