I'd better tell you straight off that I'm probably biased when it comes to Sarah Waters's books. With three of her novels already under my belt, and each one excellent in its own way, it's almost a given that I was going to love The Night Watch equally well as the rest. She's such a talented storyteller with all the right elements in all the right places--careful construction of plot that moves along at just the right pace, flesh and blood characters of depth and breadth, and everything placed against a believable backdrop, whether it's Victorian England or London during the Blitz. Granted her last two novels have a different feel to them than her previous three Victorian stories (I've yet to read Tipping the Velvet, but it's definitely on my list for 2010), but she still knows how to tell a story with verve and panache and is easily one of my favorite novelists writing today.
No doubt much has been said about the unusual construction of this novel (I've actually not yet read any reviews of the book other than this article penned by Waters herself and published in the Guardian). The story covers six years in the lives of four Londoners, three women and a man, but it moves backwards in time, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1941. The reader is introduced to these seemingly disparate characters and their friends and lovers, whose lives by the end of the story (or the beginning depending on how you think of it) will cross and intertwine in occasionally surprising ways.
I wasn't sure whether she would be able to pull off a story in this manner, or that I would like it. As I began reading I sort of felt a sense of disappointment thinking I was at the end of the story, and this is how the lives of these characters had turned out. I already knew the ending and where's the fun in that. Yet she still managed to satisfy my desire for a compelling story, and while the ending wasn't necessarily of the shocking climactic sort, there were most definitely revelations, which until the end had me sitting on the edge of my seat in a few cases. I may not necessarily have been able to identify with the characters, but I came to care about them enough to want to know more about their lives.
Secrets are what drive the story along. Each of the main characters has a secret they are hiding--at least from the reader and perhaps from each other. In the Guardian article Waters writes:
"I began with a handful of characters, all of them--as seemed to suit the period--more or less unhappy, and all of them with secrets; all of them involved in relationships and lifestyles which were, in one way or another, illicit."
Apparently the things that had initially drawn Waters to this period in the first place, the "blighted landscape, the austerity, the sense of inertia, and the reticence" were the things that no one in post-WWII Britain wanted to talk about. Life after the war was dreary despite it being peacetime, and it was what had happened during the war and in the characters' pasts that was interesting. Hence the unusual progression backwards that Waters manages so successfully.
The cover of my edition is a very apt illustration of the feel of the story--it's a dark story. Not only do you get a sense of what life in a blackout must have felt like, but you can feel the oppression of the characters, too. None of them are happy people. In most cases they are in unhappy and unsatisfying relationships or alone and at loose ends and leading bleak existences. What Waters does so masterfully is explain how they ended up that way. In some ways the war was about opportunities--for women, for leading a certain lifestyle, and when the war ended and the world righted itself, those advantages and opportunities were gone and the status quo reasserted itself.
I'm being very vague about what actually happens in the story, aren't I. I can tell you how things end, but somehow that doesn't seem especially meaningful, but it's almost impossible to talk about the book without giving details away and ruining it for any new readers. I will say the relationships in the book are on the complex side, and new characters are slowly introduced without immediate explanation so the reader does need to pay close attention. Just when things seem fairly straightforward, the story takes a step back and I had to reorient myself once again, but this is not a criticism just an observation.
I do want to mention the amount of research Waters must have poured into this novel. She spent four years researching and writing it, and it's obvious from the result with its careful attention to details. Once again I'm going to quote from that Guardian article (which I recommend reading if you've read the book and have an interest in the period). I'm always curious about how an author works, and I found Waters's experiences interesting.
"Immediately, I was both captivated by what I began to discover about wartime Britain, and disconcerted by the sheer amount of material available for research. For information about nineteenth-century life I had been more or less limited to books; now I had a whole new set of resources: films, photographs, sound recordings, civil defence records, the physical ephemera of war, and--since so many people in the 1940s felt compelled to make a record of the startling events they saw unfolding around them--a staggering selection of diaries and memoirs. On top of that, there was the fact of the period being still very firmly within living memory. Giving an early public reading from the half-finished manuscript, I found myself talking confidently about what the 1940s were 'like'--then had the unnerving experience of looking around the room and realising that many members of the audience were old enough to recall the decade for themselves."
"In one way, this was exciting; it meant that when for example, I hesitated over whether to have one of my female characters talk about her 'knickers' or her 'drawers', I had people to ask. ('Knickers', came the rather rude reply.) But it was also frightening. I'd occasionally made mistakes with historical details before; now, not only did the potential anachronism and blunder seem greater, but I felt that the 1940s somehow belonged to the people who remembered living through them, and that I had a responsibility to them to get things right. The nineteenth century always felt to me to a certain extent like a stage-set, already mythicised by its own extravagant fictions and by a century's worth of period novels and nostalgia; the era and its motifs seemed up for grabs, available for playful reinvention. For all our overuse of wartime stereotypes--the Blitz spirit, the nylons, the gum-chewing GIs--I would have felt a bit of an upstart taking liberties like that with the 1940s."
Sorry, that was a bit long but having read both her Victorian novels and her post-war novels, it is an interesting comparison in terms of how she does her research. I'm not sure I can pick a favorite amongst her books. After reading The Little Stranger I was sure that was it. I've enjoyed them all and will happily reread them. I wonder if it's too soon to wonder what she has planned for her next?