“Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.”
Sarah Waters takes an audacious approach to her fourth novel. The initial setting is 1947, when Great Britain is still recovering from the damage of World War II. We meet four unfulfilled Londoners: Kay, a former ambulance driver, wanders aimlessly around the city, unsure of what to do with herself. Duncan, a pretty young man, has a dull job in a factory and lives with a shady older man he calls “uncle.” His sister Vivian seems stuck in a languishing affair with a married man. She works at a lonely hearts’ club with Helen, who fears that her relationship with another woman is coming to an end.
The twist is that the story moves backwards in time. The first shift is back to 1944, just before the Allied victory, but still a time when Britain is being bombed by Germany. The second shift is to 1941 during the very worst of the bombing. In this innovative way, Waters reveals how her characters came to be in their present circumstances. It’s really ballsy, so I was disappointed when there wasn’t much of a payoff – at least, I thought there wasn’t.
Outwardly, not much happens in the first part of The Night Watch. Characters go listlessly from day to day, relieved that the war is over but missing the sense of purpose it gave to their lives. They have guarded conversations that hint at past love affairs as well as traumatic events. It’s very much what Eddie Izzard calls “a room with a view of a staircase and a pond.” The real meat comes in the middle, where their backstories are told. I probably would have felt more satisfied with the novel if it had ended there, but for some reason Waters decided to go back another three years, and there are no revelations to compare with the second part. And of course, while some hope of happiness is introduced, I want to know what happens next!
As always, lush and lovely writing from Waters. Three and a half stars.