The Night Watch: A Review

I got this book because there was a lot of buzz around it being a Man Booker Prize Finalist (and a book that many bloggers stated should have won the prize) and again, it was about WWII, one of my favorite subjects to read about. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is an edgy, well written, sharply intriguing book about London during and after WWII. Waters takes us backwards through time, starting after the war and going backwards towards the beginning of the war.

Waters' methods seem to aim at trying to surprise us with certain "twists" in the plot, but ultimately by the end I had already guessed the beginning of the characters. There were no big surprises and while many reviewers seem to like her backwards progression I found it unnecessary and didn't feel like it made any significant statement. Rather I found it a bit annoying because I had to go back and read parts of the beginning again to try to connect this and that. It didn't ruin the novel for me but it didn't enhance it either.

We follow four Londoners backwards through the war. The characters are unique and yet realistic. They are intense and reachable. You can grasp their feelings, their intentions, their thoughts. By the end of the book they feel like people you know, they feel real. This to me was Waters' greatest gift, she painted the characters with such lucid detail that it was real and intriguing at the same time. The characters unique and yet familiar. The plot completely unfathomable to my generation and yet somehow I felt as if I were there. Her gift of writing beautiful descriptions and building her characters in my opinion far outweighed her gift of developing plot. While the plot was interesting and evoking, sometimes it ran thin and by the end where it is apparent she was trying to pull some unexpected twists and turns, I guessed each one and found some less than satisfying and uninteresting. The ending, which was the beginning of the war for the characters, was the least satisfying while the beginning of the novel, which was after the war for the characters, was the most interesting, though oftentimes very confusing and cryptic. The sacrifice of the end of the book for the beginning wasn't worth it to me as I was often too confused at the beginning of the book to fully let myself get into the story. I believe Waters chose structure over story for The Night Watch, and while the book was still compelling and moving, I don't believe she made the right choice.

But don't let that keep you from the book, her writing alone is worth the read. This scene literally made me feel ill, such was the intensity of the writing. It describes a woman cutting herself for the first time:
She put a hand upon the leg, to stretch the flesh tight between her fingers and her thumb; she listened once, to be sure that there was no one out in the hall able to hear her, then she brought the edge of the blade to the skin and made a cut. The cut was shallow but impossibly painful: she felt it, like stepping in icy water, as a hideous shock to the heart. She recoiled for a moment, then tried a second time.
The paragraph goes on. The description of this desperate woman cutting herself, wanting to see her own blood made me nauseous. Okay, so I get dizzy when I see blood, so maybe that had something to do with it, but the fact that Waters' writing brought the image so vividly to me is a testament to her skill, not my aversion to blood.

The characters and images stayed with me after I closed the book, like ghosts of people and places I once knew. And for that alone the book is a success.


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