The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 470 pages, 2006

Rating: 10/10

Reason for Reading: I loved Fingersmith; The Night Watch is currently on the shortlist for the 2006 Booker Prize.

Synopsis: Four restless Londoners, three women and a young man, deal with war-torn life in the 1940s, struggling to find happiness and love in a time when their normal problems are compounded by bombings and deaths.

Why you should read this book: A reader would never expect so much from a single book – not only do we get a full look at the personal life of a character during wartime, along with the ravages of war, but Waters gifts us with four such fully-formed characters, each with a unique and fascinating tale. Leading the way is Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war but who now seems content to let life pass her by. An interesting question is raised through Waters’ thorough tales – how much of life can be blamed on external circumstances, such as war, and how much is simply a path we would have walked down anyway? The lives of the characters quietly but poignantly weave into each other, finishing on a graceful note. Masterfully done, The Night Watch is impossible to put down.

Why you should avoid this book: Waters is known for her Victorian writings, which can still come through in her style even when the characters seem perfectly suited to the 1940s, but it’s still not something that would concern most readers.

Opening paragraph:

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.

Fabulous quotes:

‘Why don’t you stay here till I get home?’
‘Don’t be silly. I’m all right, really. It’s a bore, that’s all.’
She finished her tea. Her hand was quite steady now. She brushed crumbs from her lap, got to her feet, and helped clear away the plates.
‘What will you do now?’ Mickey asked her, as they made their way down the Harrow Road.
Kay became a debutante again. She made a flighty gesture. ‘Oh, I’ve heaps of things.’
‘Have you, really?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘I don’t believe you. Have a think about what I said – about coming to live with me. Will you? Or come out, some time! We could go for a drink. We could go to Chelsea. There’s no one there these days, the crowd’s all changed.’

He made his way along the alley at the back of Mr Mundy’s house, and emerged in a residential street. The street was one he walked down often, but it seemed transformed to him now, in the darkness. He moved more slowly, taken with the strange aspect of it all: very aware of the people in the houses that he passed; seeing lights put out in downstairs rooms and springing on in bedrooms and on landings, as the people went to bed. He saw a woman lift a white net curtain to reach for a window latch: the curtain draped her as a veil would a bride. In a modern house, a frosted bathroom window was lit up and showed, very clearly, a man in a vest: he sipped from a glass, put back his head to gargle; then jerked forward to spit the gargle out. Duncan caught the ring of the glass as it was set down on the basin, and when the man turned on a tap, he heard water rushing through a waste-pipe, spluttering as it struck the drain below. The world seemed full, to him, of extraordinary new things. Nobody challenged him. Nobody seemed even to look at him. He moved through the streets as a ghost might.

Also recommended: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys; The Master by Colm Toibin; The Mercy Room by Gilles Rozier.

Also by this author: Fingersmith; Tipping the Velvet; Affinity.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet have both been adapted for BBC TV.

Would I read more by this author? Both books I’ve read of Waters’ have been 10/10s, so yes.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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