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What I’m Reading: The Night Watch

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Strictly speaking, I’ve finished reading it, but it’s not a review per se.

Sarah Waters is well-known for her historical novels, which all touch, in some way or another, on lesbian themes. They are exciting, well-researched and actually treat women like humans capable of sexual desire, rather than just being objects of it.

So, after reading Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, I was highly curious as to what a Sarah Waters novel was doing on my 14 year old cousin’s bookshelf. A quick look inside established that the book had been acquired from a charity shop, rather than sought out.

I slipped it out and rearranged the bookshelf to make it less obvious I had removed something. I’m not out to my family because I’m a spanner. I’m not ashamed, I just find it difficult rather to explain that I’m not a lesbian, and that there are alternative explanations for my interest in lesbian film and literature.

I liked Tipping the Velvet. I saw the BBC adaptation first, but thoroughly enjoyed the book too, much preferring the book incarnation of the main character, Nan. That’s not to say the TV version isn’t worth a watch, because it very much is. Off the top of my head, it has Keeley Hawes, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Vegas in it.

Fingersmith was less good. It was a riveting, complex plot, filled with duplicitous characters, but felt very much as if lesbianism had just been shoehorned into it. It might just have been me, but the ending left me feeling more than a little awkward.

So, I wasn’t expecting much. Doctor of English Literature Waters may be, but the vast majority only have one good novel in them. As Fingersmith wasn’t half as good as Tipping the Velvet, I was expecting The NIght Watch to be only a quarter as good as Fingersmith.

I am glad to announce that I was wrong.

Set, to begin with, in 1947, it marked a departure from the Victorian novels that I had read, which was a pleasant surprise. There were four central characters, all with enormous secrets, and it was engaging to try and work out the connection between the four of them, and what these secrets might be.

As the novel moves on, it also moves backwards, before climaxing in 1941.

Yes, that does preclude a happy ending, which bothers me only because I haven’t read one for quite some time. But it was really interesting to look at these stories as having a resolution, not for the character, but for the reader.

For example, the character of Duncan is first introduced as an anonymous young man being watched from a window by Kay. So much of his story is told from the perspectives of others, that I felt, as a reader, compelled to make the same assumptions that other characters made of him.

I wouldn’t say I was pleasantly surprised by the climax (read above re: no happy ending), but as a reader, I found it utterly compelling to the last.

In some ways, The Night Watch is better than Tipping the Velvet, because it reads simply as a novel, and not a “lesbian novel”. I would recommend it therefore, to anyone who is not particularly squeamish- set partially during the London Blitz and subsequent offensives. There are also some nastily graphic scenes which I cannot spoil, but just take note that this book is honest and brutal and sad.

Chapter lengths make it sometimes a tough read, but the prose is easy enough to follow. Just remember to stop when there’s a change in point of view, rather than trying to continue to the end of the chapter, because you will be exhausted.

So, yes. Utterly recommended, to men, women, straight, gay or anywhere in between any of the options. Just not people who faint at the sight of blood or desperately need happy endings.