The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

Oh, Sarah Waters, how I love you!

I picked up Water’s first novel Tipping the Velvet more or less on a whim a couple years ago, questing for high quality erotica, I think. What I discovered, to my great delight, was something more. It wasn’t just well-written erotica, it was genuine literature, a masterfully well told story on every level. I devoured the book in about two days of non-stop reading. The next of her books that I picked up was Fingersmith. I really don’t even know what to say about that one except wow. Fingersmith is probably the closest thing I’ve ever found to the platonic ideal of the novel. It has everything: deep compelling characters, intense twisty plot, sex, passion, murder, betrayal, insanity. Everything. This is the book which should be given to anybody says they’re bored of books, who doesn’t like to read anything tougher than Harry Potter because they’re worried it’ll put them to sleep. Give them Fingersmith and watch their brains explode. God, that’s a great book. Affinity and The Little Stranger, while not quite reaching that same lofty heights, are wonderful and engrossing novels which deserve a read.

To make a long paragraph short: Sarah Waters is magnificent, and her books are wonderful.

That said, there is one of Waters’ novels which I put off reading. The Night Watch abandoned the Dickensian time period of her other books, instead following the lives of several people throughout the course of World War II. For whatever reason, that concept never really snagged me, so I left it alone. Might as well save it, whispered the voice in the back of my mind, because then there will always be a Sarah Waters novel left which you’ve never yet read, and isn’t that comforting?

But no more!

I’ve finished with the book, and am now left to wait, hoping she publishes something new soon. How long has it been since The Little Stranger? Too many years, I can tell you that. Tick tock, Sarah…

So then, what did I – Sarah Waters super-fan – think of this, her least appreciated novel? Well, honestly… kinda blah. Blah? Blah? Well… yeah. Blah.

Don’t get me wrong, Waters is an amazing writer, and her command of the craft is on full display here. Her ability to place the reader into a distant time period and convey a sensation of photo-realistic authenticity remains unmatched. I said to somebody once of Fingersmith that it was a book which absolutely reeked, that it was a book so drenched in sensation that you could practically smell the filthy London back-alleys and stodgy drawing rooms. The Night Watch is no less tactile. Unfortunately, it stumbles a bit when it comes to character and narrative and construction. It is by no means a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The core problem of The Night Watch is also its most distinctive feature: it moves backwards. Now, that’s not quite as bizarre as it sounds – this isn’t some Donald Barthelme type assault on the form – but it does change the novel drastically. What I mean by saying that it moves backwards is that the story is split into three distinct sections, each of which takes place at an earlier date than the section which preceded it. Essentially, it goes Post-War, Late-War, Early-War. You’re next question, of course, is to ask why. Why is the book structured in this way? Well… I don’t really know. Whatever Waters was shooting for, I personally think she rather missed the mark.

The effect of this dissonant time-jumping is that the narrative is effectively reset periodically. Everything we’ve come to know about the four main characters is turned back, all progress they’ve made erased, all development set aside. Now, with some authors, I could see this trick being used marvelously. I just wrote about David Foster Wallace a little while ago, and I didn’t find any detriment to the totally nonlinear construction of The Pale King and Infinite Jest, on the contrary, it works wonderfully in those books. Waters, however, isn’t that type of novelist, her great strength is her ability to place you in the shoes of her characters. The jarring shifts work against that, and feel as though they are preventing the narrative from achieving any significant momentum.

Further clashing with Waters’ natural abilities is that fact that this book has four point-of-view characters. The most she’s ever used before was two, and that was in a book which featured a dramatic hard shift at the midpoint which was intended to destabilize the reader’s equilibrium. Here, the constant hopping about from person to person only served to be confusing, especially since the relationships between the characters were constantly changing from one section to the other, and many of the supporting characters appeared scattered throughout multiple points of view. It’s all kind of a clusterfuck, really. It’s never a good thing when the reader can’t keep track of who’s who, and it’s flat-out terrible when the reader still can’t keep track three-quarters of the way through the book!

To be perfectly honest, this didn’t feel like it wanted to be a novel. I think that Waters actually wanted to write four novellas about life in World War II-era England. Tangling up the stories only dilutes their potency, and pinning it all on a novelistic structure only contorts them into an unnatural shape. There are moments in this book that really sing. The ambulance drivers digging through the rubble of a ruined house, a woman’s devastating attack of relational insecurity and paranoia, the inmates of a prison looking up from their cells as the bombs fall, a grim trip to a dentist/abortionist… those are all pieces that work tremendously well, and could have made very potent short stories.

As a novel, however, The Night Watch doesn’t quiet seem to fit, and fails as a result to reach the dizzying highs to which Sarah Waters has previously taken the form. Honestly – and it pains me to say this – I could have left this one on the shelf a little longer.

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