Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch


Time and again there have been unknown faces that go unnoticed lost amidst the larger chaos of life. The simple emotions and passions of those common individuals, their fears and longings in such extraordinary times as a World War, remain concealed under the scars of a wartime. In this year’s Booker prize finalist, The Night Watch, Sarah Waters spins a tale around four such ordinary people who live through the tumultuous times of a war, fighting the secret demons of their own lives.

Kay is a ‘night watch’ ambulance driver rescuing people and removing dead bodies every time the air-raid siren goes off. Helen is Kay’s lover who nurtures a secret love for Julia, a crime-writer. Viv is a glamorous typist deeply in love with a married soldier. Duncan is Viv’s brother and fighting a lone battle within himself. The Night Watch is a story of these four seemingly unrelated people whose lives get connected in strange ways in a war-ravaged London.

The fascinating aspect of the novel is its unique narrative style, that begins in post-war London in 1947, with Kay wearing a man’s clothes wandering the London streets aimlessly, and moves backwards till its end in 1941.

So this, said Kay to herself, is the sort of person you’ve become: a person whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord’s door.

Waters begins the story introducing us to the present state of all her characters. At this point, none of them reveal their past and are rather guarded in what they actually express. The story gradually delves from the surface of all the guarded conversations into layers of trauma, of what they went through. Come 1944, and we are in the midst of air-raids and bombardment of shells. The four lives and their connections become more apparent, and then in 1941, the beginning of the war also marks the beginning of their relationships.

The overall momentum is gripping, be it the action of air raids or the intimate emotions of characters. Waters partially dwells on a feministic outline during the segments of Viv and her soldier lover, and the intricate love of Kay, Helen and Julia.

Kay moved her hand to the curve of Helen’s jaw and cupped it with her palm… gazing at her in a sort of wonder; unable to believe that something so fresh and unmarked could have emerged from so much chaos.

Viv’s physical and emotional struggles coping with her disastrous abortion attempt, is indicative of the stereotype man Waters portrays in Viv’s lover,

He stood in the bathroom doorway, as pale as ash: biting his fingernails… if only he’d come  and hold my hand, Viv thought. If only he’d put his arm around me… But all he did was meet her gaze and make a helpless sort of gesture.

Duncan’s life is probably the lame side of the novel. What was until then an equally powerful character in Duncan, gets to a rather tame finish when the reason of Duncan’s imprisonment is revealed. Waters could certainly have thought better. Otherwise, the characters are beautifully penned, and they sound as themselves, as the ones who have given in to the realities of their period.

The Night Watch is not a story of twists and suspense. But a simple and delicate story of four people whose past slowly unfolds, revealing how they became what they are.


3 Responses to “Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch

  1. Hey this sounds like a very interesting book. Great write up. Will try and get a copy :)

  2. 2 prat

    The book in itself sounds awesome. Just noted something about your style of writing. Like fine wine, it seems to be getting better with each passing day. Loved your previous post as well. The flow is marvellous, and your editing skills seem remarkable.

    Hey Booker dudes, watch out for Kichili.

  3. 3 Mridula Udupa

    Hey – very impressive. I had despaired of finding people in Bangalore who read, especially techies ;-) (No offence!)You should read Margaret Atwood’s short stories, Alias Grace and Edible Woman – she’s awesome! If you like humour, I recently picked up Carl Muller and his sagas on the Von Bloss family – it’s hilarious enough to make your stomach hurt. Feminist, huh? Read Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex?
    Keep up the entries on the books, and I may just have found a blog that interests me!

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