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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...
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on 22 March 2006
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!!
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on 17 October 2006
I'll say just briefly what's already been said: that Sarah Waters's fourth novel is set against the background of London during and just after the Second World War, that it's narrated in reverse chronological order, in three sections of unequal length, set in 1947, 1944 and 1941. And that it portrays the interlocking destinies of four main characters: Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan.
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.
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on 15 August 2006
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.
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on 29 May 2007
The Night Watch has been in my `to be read' pile for some time. I bought it as it was set during the Second World War, a dramatic and captivating period of time for me, but I was put off by the structure of the book. It starts in 1947 and ends in 1941. I didn't like the idea that I would know how the character's stories finished before I found out what had happened to them in the beginning.

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.
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on 28 September 2006
This is my first foray into Waters territory, and what a wonderful experience it was. At first I found the atmosphere a little gloomy and overcast, the characters rather macabre, but I was soon won over by the sheer brilliance of the writing. Waters ought to be used a paragon in all creative writing classes. The woman does not put a foot wrong. Her language, while never flamboyant, is so perfectly poised that reading her words is like watching a film, so exactly do they conjure up what she is describing.

The characters were so vivid, so unforgettable, so touchingly human, that I felt quite bereaved when I came to the end. But even more compelling was Water's evocation of wartime Britain, and London during the air raids. It was truly like being there yourself.

In short, quite, quite wonderful. Merits every superlative you can think of.
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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...
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on 18 February 2006
I was somewhat nervous about this book because, as a graduate student in Victorian Studies, Sarah Waters' first three novels were very special to me. However, I was far from disappointed by The Night Watch. I don't know much about London in the '40s, but Waters was able to make me picture it vividly.
The structure of the book -- moving backwards from 1947 to 1944 to 1941 -- surprised me at first, but I grew to appreciate it. What's so brilliant is the way that it disrupts the reader's sense of cause and effect. It made me realize how much is lost in the structure of the conventional, linear, cause-and-effect novel simply because we are so used to the formula. Dealing with effects before causes allowed Waters to give her readers a unique way of seeing these characters. It also made the novel almost painfully haunting for me. In a way it's a fantasy of time moving backwards: literally or figuratively, death is followed by life, mutilated bodies are followed by unmarred ones. After I finished the 1947 section, I was frustrated because I felt like the novel was over; I knew that I would learn nothing further about the characters and yet I yearned to know what happened to them. However, as I read on, I did learn more. Their pasts illuminated their futures, and the story moved forward even as it moved backward.
Unlike some of the other reviewers here, I found all of the characters compelling (especially Kay and Duncan), not only as individuals, but as nodes in a web of connecting relationships. It is perhaps the shifting relationships (pairings) that are the real characters in the story. As in all of Waters' novels so far, betrayal is a major theme. The scene in which Helen's jealosy errupts almost made my heart stop because of the crushing accuracy with which Waters is able to depict a relationship that's falling apart and the weird little things we do when it happens.
The best thing about this novel is that it showcases a writer who is perfecting her craft. Although Tipping the Velvet is actually my favorite Waters' novel in terms of the sheer pleasure that I get from reading it (especially as a Victorianist!), The Night Watch is her best written work yet. She's pared down her prose a bit, but the novel is laden with little turns of phrase that took my breath away. She just has a way of describing things that makes me put down the book, stare into space for awhile, and think, "I know exactly what that feels like."
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on 15 August 2013
Sarah Waters is an excellent writer, and this is one of her best books (all her books are excellent, but this one especially).

It is rich and rewarding, with several complex characters that you sympathise with but are also believable.

It's also an interesting take on an overdone subject - stories of WWII are so very often about the men; the politicians, the soldiers, etc. Here we have a variety of women trying to get on in London during the blitz, and, more interesting (for me at least!) how they handle the after effects of the war. All too often to focus is on the injuries the men have suffered (physical and mental) with very little thought for how a world war affected the women, and the expectation that they all just return to being little housewives after it was all over.

The book is so much more than 'women in WWII' - lots of other storylines and developments - but I thought it was interesting of Waters to set it in this conventionally male time.

I would recommend this book whole-heartedly.
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on 9 February 2006
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.
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