Set in 1940s London, The Night Watch revolves around the lives of four people: Kay, Helen, Vivien, and Duncan. The book opens in 1947; each character has experienced the dramatic impact of World War II, living through bombings and coping with loss. Duncan is an ex-con working a menial job. Duncan’s sister Vivien is having an affair with a married man. Helen is in a committed but troubled relationship with another character, Julia. Kay is leading a somewhat aimless and lonely existence.
Sarah Waters spends nearly 200 pages building up each of these characters, whose lives appear to be independent from each other. But there is much Waters leaves unsaid. Just as I was wondering where all this was going, Waters employed a very interesting device: she took me backwards in time. Part 2 of The Night Watch is set in 1944, and there the reader learns much more about each character’s history. Some of the connections between characters are explained. In part 1, Vivien briefly encounters Kay and gives her something she’s had for a long time. It seems like a minor detail. But in part 2, a particularly harrowing sequence reveals the significance of the encounter in part 1. Part 3, set in 1941, portrays the protagonists at the time of the Blitz, explains how Duncan came to spend time in prison, and provides the backdrop for romantic relationships in place during parts 1 and 2.
It’s an effective technique. Moving in reverse allows Waters to show only the most essential details of the past. She weaves a rich tapestry of characters and relationships. And she writes about lesbian love in a refreshingly candid way. The erotic scenes are no more or less explicit than fiction about heterosexual relationships. And they are not there to titillate, but to say, “hey, this is what happens, this is normal.” I do believe this type of candor is, in some way, advancing societal understanding and acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships.
However, there was one flaw in The Night Watch: the lavatory figured far too prominently in the story. I know that every character in a novel needs to pee now and then. But does the reader really need to be informed? A couple made love and then one person “went to the lavatory.” Someone would “need to use the lavatory” before leaving home. Or, a character would be sitting in their quiet house late at night and hear their partner upstairs, washing up and using the lavatory. A lavatory even featured in the aftermath of a bombing, although it was not being used at the time. What was that about? It really drove me crazy and caused me to knock half a star off the rating of an otherwise good book.