The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The night watch sarah watersI haven’t written any reviews for the longest time.  That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading. Nor have I stopped riding the train for that matter, although now my journeys are fewer but longer, so when I do ride the train I tend to use the oasis of the quiet carriage to write for my thesis.  However, the bookshop at my University asked me to write a  recommendation for my favourite LGBT book, either fiction or non-fiction, which brought me back to thinking about the blog again.

The bookshop have been gearing up for LGBT History Month and were planning a display of LGBT books, each of which were to be accompanied by a recommendation from staff and students of the university.  So, once I said yes I had to nominate my favourite LGBT book. How hard could it be? Hmm… well when I got to thinking about it I just couldn’t come up with a favourite.  Most times there is usually something about a book that I just don’t get, don’t like, or makes me feel a bit meh. And really, I don’t read all that much LGBT focused stuff anyway.  Right now most of my reading is thesis focused, when I get the opportunity to read for pleasure I read things that take my fancy more than anything – I am particularly partial to classic and historical fiction, and if there is a lesbian in them that is generally a plus point but there doesn’t have to be one. So, based on my likes I narrowed it all down and it was clear it had to be a Sarah Waters novel – but which one? Well eliminating The Little Stranger, which has no lesbians in it, there could only be one winner The Night Watch.

The brief for the recommendation was what I liked about this book – where to start – this is perhaps my absolute favourite of Waters books, mind you I have yet to read her new offering The Paying Guests yet. The first thing that strikes you when you read The Night Watch is the alternative approach to telling the story. Sometimes, even when a tale is told in linear start to finish mode you still need to know how characters arrive at their present situation, get an understanding of their personal history.  In this book that is just what Waters does by taking you backward through time to discover the loves and lives of the key characters and how they survive, and sometimes thrive, through World War II.  The book is about four Londoners living through the war, but we don’t get their stories from start to finish, instead you start in 1947 and end up in 1941 in a queer approach to telling the tale of queer folk and their relationships.

As with all Waters work, this book is rich in detail, but this one is a little quieter and deeper than her previous Victorian era lesbian tales, and is very much character driven. As you travel backwards through time you discover the histories of each of the characters and learn what makes them who they are in 1947. Another unique aspect is the queerness of all the main characters, both in respect of who they are and their relationships. First we have Kay, a butch dyke, who finds a kind of freedom in war torn London as an ambulance driver; Duncan whose war experience is distinctly different from most young men of his age; Viv, whose love life revolves around a married man; and Helen, whose love life revolves around another woman.  Traveling back in time uncovers the intricate connections between each of these characters, all of whom are living at the margins of normative respectability. By the end we understand how the main four characters have become who they are when we first meet their 1947 selves.

What worked not so well was the character of Duncan. Whereas all the female characters, lesbian or not, were rounded and believable, Duncan appeared to me to be an insipid character who, situated in a different genre of story would surface as a Private Pike type individual. But that might just be my impatient reading of his character, eager as I was to move on to the women’s stories. Of course, it may be that his story needed to be more rounded and filled out a little in order for it to work well. Whether it is my less interested reading of him or the need for him to be more developed, compared to the other male characters Duncan is pale and weak.

However, despite Duncan, the novel is, without doubt, the best Waters I have read to date and the first that I wanted to re-read as soon as I finished it.