The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

With so many good books in the world there must be some special reasons for rereading one. I recently took my copy of The Night Watch from my shelves and enjoyed several days in the company of Viv, Helen, Kay and Duncan. I first read it 14 years ago in 2007, a year after it was published.

I had two reasons for wanting to return to this novel. First, I am having something of a binge on wartime novels at the moment. It started when I began a short story set during the war, but I’ve neglected that story recently, while my enjoyment of wartime novels has continued.

Second, Sarah Waters employs an interesting structural device in this novel. The three episodes are present in reverse chronology: the characters are introduced in 1947, their experiences in 1944 follow and the final section concerns their lives in 1941. It’s a bold way to tell a story and I wanted to think about its effects. 

The Night Watch

We first meet the four protagonists after the war is over in 1947. None of them is happy and one of the effects of the chronological structure is that their histories are gradually revealed. Their backstories come later. The influence of the past on the present, of chance, of kindness and innocence are revealed in this way which makes everything unpredictable.

If you think about it, this is how you usually find out about people that you meet, and I don’t mean the ones in novels. You get to know them a little and you ask them about their past, where they’ve lived, their jobs, or education and so forth. We see how the person we have just met fits in with our understanding about the past that they reveal.

However, novels usually take the chronological development of their story in a traditional sequential way, albeit with flashbacks included. Sarah Waters in an exceptional storyteller. I would love to know why she chose to tell The Night Watch in the fashion.

It certainly makes the reader pay attention. They must try to sort out the puzzles that she lays before them. Why was Duncan in prison, for example? Or what is the mystery of the ring that connects Viv to Kay? And how did the war and their experiences in the war change the directions of the lives of the four characters? Part of the pleasure of reading The Night Watch is to resolve such mysteries. 

It is somewhat unsettling to read while keeping the later story in mind as she takes us backwards first to 1944 and then to 1941. The reader is constantly having to make the connections in reverse, as it were. The effect is to show up the accidental nature of so much of life, and, with the background of the war, how dark and dangerous life can be.

And perhaps this is one of the questions being posed – what are the limits of deploying conventional chronology in fiction and what happens when you reverse them?

Another experiment in telling stories backwards is Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (1991). He employs a different device, telling the whole story in reverse, from a reverse consciousness: death leading to a strange rebirth, the person arriving in the prime of life, recovering their innocence in childhood and finally being reabsorbed into their mother’s body. Slightly yucky but it does raise questions about cause and effect, and moral responsibility especially as the protagonist is a Holocaust doctor who works in the camps. The effect in this novel is also unsettling and raises questions about morality and how we develop and judge moral behaviour.

Within this experimental way of presenting the stories in The Night Watch there are some very vivid scenes. There is a walk during the air raids of 1944 by two women through the city. They must guess where they are by landmarks such as churches as all the street names have been removed in case of invasion. In the same section Duncan experiences a terrifying air raid from inside his prison cell. 

Other aspects of the novel only slowly emerge. For example, we learn where Viv met her older married boyfriend, in the final section. But we have already wondered why she had not ditched him. And her decision not to see him again in the post-war section is really only explained by the long experience of her affair with him.

So I learned more about being on the night watch during the Blitz, and also about playing around with chronology. It’s tricksy, destabilising and an intriguing technique.

Sarah Waters

Born in Wales in 1966, she came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. She came to fame as a result of the success of the television version of her first novel Tipping the Velvet in 2002. The Night Watch was her fourth novel, which took her four years to write. She has described it as like a wrestling match. 

Like her other novels it has been a success, shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize (later the Women’s Prize) for fiction.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, published in 2006 by Virago.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

2 Responses to The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

  1. Jennifer

    Thanks Caroline. This will definitely go onto my reading list!

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