The Night Watch
Having been recommended Sarah Waters’ books previously, and knowing her legacy as a feminist writer, I was not surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. While The Night Watch is Sarah Waters’ fourth novel, it is the first of hers that I have read and I am happy to say that I now have plans to go back and read the other three. I would encourage anyone thinking of reading Sarah Waters to do so and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
In The Night Watch there are four main protagonists: Kay, Helen, Duncan and Viv. Likeable in their own ways, they are four people with secrets to hide. “Tender, tragic and beautifully poignant, set against the backdrop of feats of heroism both epic and ordinary, here is a novel of relationships that offers up subtle surprises and twists.”
I absolutely loved how the story showed the ugly side to human relationships. The novel is full of unrequited love, infidelity and conflicting emotions. I initially predicted the novel to be a true romantic novel but that is not what The Night Watch is and I don’t begrudge it this in the slightest. It was gritty and real, and I loved every chapter.
I particularly give praise to Waters’ presentation of lesbian relationships and through how she is able to write lesbians back into history. It was refreshing for these characters to be represented without a political angle. While the majority of the characters in the novel are homosexual, Waters is not attempting to present the gay experience during the war, but rather she is portraying the lives of gay people as being a part of the war efforts, just like everyone else.
Structurally, I found the book absolutely fascinating, particularly through its use of three distinct time periods. First we are presented with the present that is 1947, to war-stricken 1944 and finally with 1941, a period of uncertainty and impending doom. Each time period distinguishing the different stages of war reveals new insights into the characters’ lives.
The dates appearing in reverse order only adds to the intrigue. We are thrown into a story full of weather-beaten individuals and as we journey through the novel, we track their development. Through not presenting the story in chronological order, the story is revealed bit by bit. This provides a sense of helplessness within the reader: we see how the past unfolds while knowing the inevitable consequences of each action on future events.
I think this particularly worked well with the themes of the novel. A major theme of the novel is the growing recognition and acceptance of homosexuality. Many people from the early-mid twentieth century still vehemently opposed homosexual relations and, at the time, it was still considered a criminal offence. As such, the slow reveal of the novel’s events seemed akin to the secrecy in which the characters go about their daily lives.
Waters also uses wartime Britain to portray the mood and relationships of the novel. A recurring motif I noticed was the tins of meat that get passed from character to character. These cans are a reflection of wartime Britain and similarly represent how the characters’ lives interlink. They are also representative of the artificial. They replicate the real thing, but like the relationships in the novel, ultimately present a dissatisfying, sour reality.
I found Waters’ depiction of wartime Britain to be a beautiful display of rewriting homosexuals back into the history books. Its gritty portrayal of the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ has made for a timeless novel that explores some very prevalent contemporary issues.
I don’t really have anything negative to say about the novel. While the human in me had hoped for a happy ending, I’m glad I wasn’t given one as I feel this would have taken away from the cynical tone of the novel that I liked so much.
10/10 would recommend to a friend.