Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Book #65 The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch

After my rampant enthusiasm over Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, I was eager to read another of her novels, and I picked The Night Watch based upon the fact that a BBC drama was being broadcast this month starring Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) and Claire Foy (Little Dorrit) and I have it recorded to watch.

My reaction to The Night Watch was complicated. The novel is set to begin with in 1947 London:

Viv and Helen work in an introduction bureau, what would nowadays be called a dating agency for disillusioned post war men who can't cope with the changes in womens attitudes and expectations.

Helen is involved in a relationship with writer Julia, and Viv is seeing a married man named Reggie, the two colleagues each feel embarrassed, and can't confide in one another.

Viv's brother Duncan is taken aback when he is surprised by an old acquaintance from less than salubrious circumstances, and makes tentative steps towards friendship.

Kay is living life suspended unable to readjust to ordinary life following her exciting and purposeful wartime role.

What is good about this novel is that it shines a light upon the role of women on the Home Front in the Second World War, an area that is too often overlooked in WW2 novels and dramas, and the injustice that these women were expected to "go back" to pre-war roles, after these experiences. It also highlights the curiousity of UK society at the time, war or no war. The idea that instead of an attempted suicide buying you a Section, it would perversely, in the 1940's have bought you a prison sentence. Also criminal offences worthy of prison were : conscientious objection, homosexuality and being involved in an abortion. This seems utterly barbaric in 2011, but was part of the mark of civilized society in the 1940's. If sometimes we forget how much massive social change truly occurred in 20th Century Britain, this novel brings it home well.

In certain respects, I found the novel difficult. I still hadn't warmed to it after 100 pages and felt a bit let down. It gets going when we leave 1947 and flash back first to 1944 and then to 1941 as we see our characters through the war years. I really liked the characters Kay and Viv, but I found Julia cold and couldn't bear whiny, insecure Helen. I also felt that the characters were over-connected to one another in a way, that, in a city like London doesn't ring true. Waters even forces a tenuous link between Kay and Duncan which feels completely spurious.

Although the device of telling the story backwards, beginning with 1947 and going back to 1941 is an innovative way of telling the story, it has an unexpected side-effect. By leaving our characters in 1947 and never returning to their present, it leaves all their story arcs open and unfinished. Though, what happens in certain storylines can potentially be guessed at as a "Readers Game", theres something melancholic about each characters circumstance when we leave 1947, it would have been nice to see plot resolutions there. As a side issue, I found it frankly laughable that Viv would have still entertained Reggie in 1947 given what transpired between them in 1944.  

All in all, I found the book oddly dull at times considering it takes place within the action of the war. And, I was disappointed in my first post-Fingersmith Waters book. I still intend to read other titles like Affinity and Tipping the Velvet however. I would also close this review with the warning that readers in possession of a vagina might find themselves crossing their legs uncomfortably at certain moments! 7/10

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