December 2, 2006
The Night Watch
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Finished on 11/27/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very Good)
Finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, Sarah Waters's new novel tells the story of four Londoners – three women and a young man with a past – whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise, and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am excited to have discovered such a talented author. So why the delay with my review? Thumbing through my copy, I realize I didn’t mark any beautiful passages to quote, yet I was completely engrossed in the narrative. Waters is a consummate storyteller and I loved the manner in which the story unfolded, beginning in 1947, jumping backward in time to 1944 and ending in 1941. I would’ve preferred to have had a few extra chapters returning to 1947 in order to gain a clearer understanding of how all the characters wound up where they did in the opening chapters, but then, I tend to prefer tidy endings. This said, Waters doesn’t leave her readers confused with an ambiguous finale, but rather, eager for more of her rich details.
Waters' characters spring to life from the onset of the novel, easily guiding the reader into the historical period. I came to share their anxiety over air raids, the claustrophobia of the shelters and prison cells, and an overwhelming sense of weariness from the seemingly endless drone of bombers as they attacked London.
I must confess, I’ve put off writing this review for what I hope turn out to be unwarranted concerns. As I perused the Internet, reading blurbs and reviews about Water’s works, I came across labels such as “lesbian literature” and “lesbo-Victorian romp” (the latter of which are Water’s own words in reference to her debut work, Tipping the Velvet). I’ve hesitated about commenting on this and on the fairly explicit sexual overtones of the narrative, fearing that some might dismiss this marvelous book based on preconceived notions that it’s smut or porn. While some of the intimate details might be considered on the edge of erotica, the same could easily be said of one of the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich (anyone who’s read these know how hot & steamy things can get between Stephanie and Joe Morelli). I hope I’m wrong and that everyone will give this work a fair shake regardless of the sexual orientation of the main characters.
Theo Tate has written a marvelous article for The Times Literary Supplement (UK), which I encourage everyone to read. He does an excellent job describing The Night Watch, as well as analyzing Waters’ previous works (which I look forward to reading, especially after coming across a few negative reviews which claim The Night Watch is disappointing compared to Waters' earlier efforts).