If I didn’t get hyped up over a book by reading raving reviews in litblogs, then maybe I wouldn’t end up disappointed. Obviously, this isn’t a realistic option, so that’s a chance I must take. Unfortunately, that’s what happened with Sarah Waters’ Night Watch. It was good, but not great. I read it till the end, but I wasn’t riveted.
As a break from her earlier Victorian lesbian novels, Waters writes about the Second world war and its aftermaths. In a daring structure choice (though not unheard of, see Pinter’s Betrayal), she starts in 1947, then has a long section set in 1943 (during the London “small Blitz”), eventually a shorter “opening“ part in 1941. The end of the war has left no one unscathed, even people who were at the margins of the conflict (not directly soldiers). There is a large span of characters: women, men, homosexuals, heterosexuals, old and young people, as if the writer was determined, this time, to avoid the label of “lesbian writer”. Having to develop so many characters is, in my opinion, the main weakness of the novel: each of them has a secret that lies in the past, but we don’t get to spend enough time with each before moving to the next one. As a result, I often felt frustrated and the pace of the plot seemed disjointed. I think that she could make do with less characters without losing much. Besides, the interconnections between characters in the first section seem artificial, like in a TV series, and don’t add anything.
But I don’t want to make it sound like a failure either. The atmosphere and the scenes are beautifully crafted. The writing is awesome, like in Waters’ previous books. I particularly like how she renders the daily routine of war, with sights, smells, tastes, with the pervasive sense of weariness and growing indifference to other people’s sufferings. People who go through the small Blitz have already survived the Big one in 1940-41, and they’re hopeless and exhausted with deprivations. In 1943, war seem to have gone forever, yet in 1947, it barely seems over. Waters has done her research so well that you really get the feeling of a night attack in the blackout, with some down-to-earth, gruesome details and carefully chosen metaphors. I think it was on the writer’s agenda to remind her readers of some facts from the not-so-distant past, like the terror of being pregnant out of wedlock, the horror of illegal abortions, the terror of being imprisoned for homosexuality, or the shame and stigma of having a parent in prison. It’s also interesting to see how much, or how little, social taboos over lesbian relations or extramarital affairs shifted during the muddled times of war.