108 of 112 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't Mention The War
The cover of the proof copy of Sarah Waters new novel comes adorned with might well be the subtitle of the book – “A Lot Of People Who Lived Through the War Don’t Like to Talk About It”, but it’s not just the war that is discreetly pushed aside by each of the characters, it is their unwillingness to face up to who they are, to the secret...
Published on 6 Jan 2006 by Keris Nine
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curiously uninvolving for such a fine writer
Like a few other readers, I have struggled rather with this book mainly because, frankly I didn't find myself engaged by the characters.
I'm not sure whether this was the fault of structure or not - the 'reverse structure' is a bit of a gamble i think - if you are gripped by the characters, finding out how they got there can be as absorbing as wondering where...
Published on 7 Mar 2007 by Lady Fancifull
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108 of 112 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't Mention The War,
This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)The cover of the proof copy of Sarah Waters new novel comes adorned with might well be the subtitle of the book – “A Lot Of People Who Lived Through the War Don’t Like to Talk About It”, but it’s not just the war that is discreetly pushed aside by each of the characters, it is their unwillingness to face up to who they are, to the secret lives they were forced to lead and the terrible actions that each of them were driven to during a very turbulent time in their lives.
Opening in 1947 after the war, each of the characters has a dark secret they wish to block out. Helen and Viv work together in a London dating agency on Oxford Street. Helen is in love with Julia, a writer of mystery fiction, but the necessity of keeping her love secret and her own jealousy is tearing their relationship apart. Viv is having an affair with a married man, Reggie – a relationship that is doomed as he is never going to leave his wife. Viv’s brother Duncan was imprisoned during the war years over an incident that is of great distress to his father and sister. A sensitive boy, he lives now with his ‘Uncle Horace’ who he knows from prison. When by chance he meets Fraser, who he also knew from prison, the claustrophobic, locked-away existence becomes too much for him to bear, but Fraser also opens Viv’s eyes to how restricted her own life with a married man is. Connecting many of these characters is Kay, a mysterious boyish-looking girl, who seems to have endured the hardships of the war better than most, but to a cost. The toll of the war years on the characters is covered in the remaining two sections of ‘The Night Watch’ as it then moves backwards in time to 1944 and 1941.
Rather than heading towards a larger mainstream readership that she might have been tempted towards after the success of the Booker nominated ‘Fingersmith’, Sarah Waters takes a surprising change of direction here, adopting a more serious and realistic tone for her gay characters than the Victorian lesbian romps of her earlier books. ‘The Night Watch’ is almost unrelentingly bleak, starting by leaving its characters in unpleasant situations from what happened during the war and leaving them unresolved. Travelling backwards it then fully lives up to all the hints of dark events in the first part. Those events are often the common everyday stuff of friendships, extra marital affairs, petty jealousies and fears, but through the setting of the war and the intolerance of the period itself to all the central relationships, the book achieves an incredible emotional pitch - particularly when the outcome of the characters lives is already known.
One or two quibbles aside – the author rather overdoes the colloquial period use of the word ‘queer’ which comes across as too deliberate and pointed and the backwards structure doesn’t provide a proper sense of closure or completeness to the characters, (the final 1941 epilogue/prologue at the end feels unnecessary, adding little to what we already know or can work out and undercutting the tone of what has come before) – Sarah Waters writing here is superb. Avoiding narrative contrivance, the author keeps the tone realistic and authentic, the dialogue and connections between her characters naturalistic, making each of these figures utterly real and of their time and making the reader care about the unknown outcome of each one.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb writing, but can't quite give it 5 stars...,
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This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)There are a few things about Sarah Waters' books, the fact you can't put her books down, and read them at the speed of light and also that she REALLY knows about the era she's writing about. All that same quality is in this novel.
The story follows the intriguing stories of four main characters; Kay, Viv, Helen and Duncan. The characterisation is fantastic and you don't have to read too much before you really get a sense of the type of person each character is and become totally absorbed in following the characters.
The setting of war-torn London is brilliantly presented and described to the reader, and the sections on Kay and her work in the ambulance service are very gritty, realistic and historically accurate; going to bomb sites to deal with the injured and dead and how that affected her personality.
Throughout the book there is a wonderful suspense and tension and little things revealed all along, with some wonderful twists and plot links. A really good book should always leave the reader wanting more, but after reading this book not only did I want more, but it felt more like it was unfinished and I felt several things were left unresolved, unless of course that is the author's intention.
78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An involved historical drama with human interest,
This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)I loved this book. I should declare a fondness for involved historical dramas with human interest, so perhaps The Night Watch had a starting advantage.
The novel, set in 1940s London, followed various young people through the war and the immediate aftermath: Kay, Julia and Helen - three gay women; Reggie and Viv - a soldier and his mistress; and Duncan - Viv's mixed up brother. The characters are rich, and the secondary characters are no less vivid. The novel has space - six years, nearly five hundred pages, and a widely drawn cast which allows for a lot of plot development and intrigue.
The detailing is superb, with scenes described to perfection. This is never overbearing, but the beauty is in the clarity. And there is humanity and humour amongst it all. It is interesting to contrast the impact of the occasional terrorist incident today and the nightly bombing, killing and devastation that people endured only 60 years ago. And it was especially interesting to reflect on the helplessness that prisoners must have felt, unable to seek safety or shelter as bombs dropped around them.
Sarah Waters uses perfect judgement, too, in addressing homosexuality in 1940s Britain in such a subtle and caring way. She focuses on the people and the love, rather than the sex and the scandal. This is a rare feat that her male counterparts could learn from.
The novel is narrated in three chunks, in reverse chronological sequence. This gives it an odd feel, and I am sure we will all have preferences about which chunk we felt most engaged with and how we might have ordered it. Personally, I preferred the middle: the 1944 chunk. Its ending, as ambulancewoman Kay discovers the fate of her lover Helen, is my personal emotional crescendo. I found the 1941 section rather a let down coming straight afterwards. But we must judge the novel as it is ordered, for right or for wrong. And for me, it is an engaging, page turning epic that offers real insight into aspects of 1940s Britain that have been forgotten.
I'm off to read Sarah Waters other works now...
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant,
This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)I loved 'Fingersmith', 'Tipping the Velvet' and 'Affinity', but 'The Night Watch' is the best book Sarah Waters has written. It's perfect. The construction is so tight that it's dazzling and the characters are beautifully convincing. The male characters are very strong, which isn't always the case for novels in which the story is pushed forwards by the heroines.
Waters is excellent at showing how people hurt themselves and I found her portrayal of the experiences of Kay, Viv and Helen almost unbelievably moving. The twist at the end was brilliant.
It is great news that 'The Night Watch' is on the Booker longlist. Let's hope it wins.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the best yet!,
This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)I am a real sucker for WW11 novels, and have studied the period quite extensively. This really is an outstanding depiction of the Blitz and the evreyday dangers endured by everyday people. I have never read such vivid descriptions of the dangers of walking through the blackout, the sights and smells of the nightly bombing and the weariness and deprivations people had to live through. The "first" (though really the last) section of the novel is wonderful in showing the greyness and dirt of London in the 40s.
Although the chief female protagonists are gay women, this is not as important as in Waters' other novels. But we engage with all the main characters, and we feel their pain in love and loss of love very intensely.
For me, one of the most agonising scenes is the one where Viv has an abortion. It is appalling to read and leaves you drained and exhausted.
Please rush to read this book, it is Waters' best so far, and finishing it just makes you want to start it all over again.....which is exactly what I did!!
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enthralling,
However, I started it and forced myself through the first few pages. But once I'd got going the pace never faltered and I devoured the book hungrily.
The story circles around the lives of Kay, Vivien, Duncan and Helen with important periphery characters; Fraser, Julia and perhaps Mr. Mundy. We find out how each of their different lives is connected in some way.
Even though the book lacked the suspense of what happens in the end, we still want to read on to know more. How all the pieces fit together.
Waters' writing is truly evocative. I loved her vivid descriptions. The sights, the smells. The sheer terror of the Londoners. It was truly enthralling.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curiously uninvolving for such a fine writer,
I'm not sure whether this was the fault of structure or not - the 'reverse structure' is a bit of a gamble i think - if you are gripped by the characters, finding out how they got there can be as absorbing as wondering where they are going, but as I was not engaged, I found myself totally on the outside, playing mind games to see if I could guess, but caring no more than if I were trying to do do sudoku or a crossword puzzle.
Writers of course have to write the books they have to write - I've read all of Waters', because I picked up 'Affinity' first, which I thought was an amazing piece of writing, and was equally blown away by Fingersmith - these books left me with so much admiration for Waters' craft and ability - yet Tipping the Velvet seemed predictable and hackneyed. I thought 'well, TTV is a first novel - and if I'd read it before the other two, maybe it would seem very different' - sadly, for this reader at least, TNW is a disappointment - and i don't think it is just that I do like 'Victorian novels' - both writers of the time, and modern writers writing about that period.
Having recently read Andrew Greig's extraordinary 'That Summer' which, like TNW is set in Britain during the war, I didn't find Water's evocation of period particularly gave me a sense of a different time and place - Greig made me want to read more books set in the 40's (hence my keenness to read The Night Watch).
You win some, you lose some!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lesbians in the London Blitz,
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This review is from: The Night Watch (Hardcover)This novel is quite outstanding and the author has to be regarded as one of the best storytellers in the English language. Not only is the novel unique, because it starts in 1947 and ends in 1941, but it also approaches the Second World War in a new and refreshing way. The main characters (mostly gay and lesbian) that would have been treated like outcasts at the time occupy centre stage as the reader identifies with the frustrations and tragedies in their lives. Though they lived dangerously it was also a time of sexual freedom and adventure. The characters find it difficult to get to terms with the grey ordinariness of post-war life and the author reaches back into the darkness of the blitz in order to discover the pivotal moments that shaped the rest of their lives.
38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "We never seem to love the people we ought to, I can't think why...",
Briefly, because there's much, much more to it than that. The horrific experience of ordinary people in wartime London is, in a cumulative way, very well conveyed, with realistic detail that, appropriately enough, doesn't always stop short of being difficult to stomach. For those who can still be bothered to look to fiction for precisely observed and researched period detail, The Night Watch is hard to beat. Sarah Waters adds a lengthy list of acknowledgements of her sources of inspiration, and it is only a non-exhaustive non-fiction list ("the non-fiction I found most useful"), to which are to be added "novels and films of the 1940s, photographs, maps, diaries, letters, and modern accounts of life during and after the Second World War." She has done her homework impeccably. And there's also the language of the period. When one man expresses his awkwardness and resentment by calling another "you blasted b*gger", I'm immediately reminded of the (rare) fits of anger of my grandfather, who was born only slightly before the main characters here. But no-one would say that today. Sarah Waters seems to have got the dialogue spot on, with, as far as I can see, not a single anachronism.
As for the word "queer", which a previous reviewer has found overworked and obtrusive... I don't agree at all: for me, it is dropped in with just the right frequency, as a very clever leitmotif. 1940s Londonders were ordinary people living through decidedly odd times, which, if I can rely on memories of my grandparents again, they would have called "rum". Or "queer". Whether the adjective "queer" was used at the time to refer in a derogatory way to homosexuals, male or female, I cannot say. But when this word echoes throughout a novel written sixty years on, it cleverly draws a parallel between the weirdness of living in a bombed city and the more specific peculiarity of being homosexual, particularly then. Among her four main characters, Kay and Helen are lesbians and Duncan, to say the very least, is sexually confused. That's two-and-three-quarters out of four on my reckoning. And, significantly, it's the queer times that throw the queer people together.
The loves and losses in The Night Watch are, in today's parlance, gay. In most cases, with Viv's adulterous affair with Reggie constituting the exception. But, as a previous reviewer has put it, Sarah Waters focuses on the people and the love, not the sex and the scandal. None of the homosexual affairs here comes over as any more deviant than that between Viv and Reggie. (And it is a clever reversal of stereotypes to have the heterosexual lovers first meet in the toilets on a train...) Sarah Waters manages to deal with lesbian love and gay male love with equal tenderness and compassion. If anything, she reverses the contemporary stereotypes and lays more emphasis on tenderness between men, while the physical aspect is made more explicit in the case of the women. She understands that different people with different personalities love in different ways, and that perhaps the male/female distinction is not the most important one here. As I recollect, the words "jealous" and "jealousy" never appear, and yet Helen is a masterly study in the kind of emotional upheavals that jealousy and emotional insecurity give rise to. Any straight woman, or man, will be able to empathise with her.
As for the reverse chronology... no, it's not just a gratuitous trick, as hanging a painting upside down would be. It works very effectively here. The slightly strange sexuality of Viv and Reggie in the first part is seen a new light by the reader who reaches the traumatic end of the second part. Waters's technique is simply the literary equivalent of archaeology. And after all, that's how adult relationships work: when we meet people we do need gradually to work backwards and learn about their pasts. In some cases that leads to saying what Kay says to herself in the first sentence of the book: "So this is the sort of person you've become". And The Night Watch explicitly focuses on the aftermath of trauma. The consequences of living through queer times. And above all, the enrichment that can come, despite all the suffering, out of solidarity and sharing. And Sarah Waters deserves all our gratitude for sharing her manifestly generous spirit.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm very surprised at the spread of votes,
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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Hardcover - 2 Feb 2006)
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