Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Night Watch

The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, is a WWII novel which introduces its characters backwards. As a result, I couldn't get to liking them in the usual way, by sympathizing with their fears and celebrating their happiness. I was plunged into their lives in 1947, after the war, when what had shaped them had already occurred. By the time I got to the second section of the novel, 1944, I'd decided that most of their motivations and their decisions were stupid. But in the second section I saw how they had been affected by the war. It was only when I got to the third section, 1941, that I could sympathize with them because I could possibly see myself making some of the same bad choices. It's an interesting narrative technique, but it doesn't work well on the first reading.

Near the beginning of the novel, when a character named Mr. Mundy who suffers from arthritis goes to a Christian Scientist and is told that he should not be taking aspirin because it is a "false remedy....If you will only not believe in the hurt of your leg, that leg will become as negligible to you as wood is," I felt intense sympathy for him (as a former fellow arthritis sufferer). Later, however, I learn that he worked as a prison guard and has provided a home for one of his former prisoners on the condition that this attractive young man will share his bed occasionally. The young man's story is heartbreaking, but it is doled out in such small bits that it is not understandable until the very end, when I finally realize how ludicrous everyone's attitude towards him has been.

Similarly, the repression and helplessness that the central group of lesbian ambulance drivers (the ones who work the "night watch") feel after the war is more comprehensible after seeing the relative freedom they enjoy and the heroic acts they perform in wartime. By the second section, I find out that my sympathy for Helen, who believes her lover Julia has been unfaithful, is misplaced, and that rather than judging Julia harshly for this speech, I should have seen the situation as she does:
"Is there something about affairs? Is it like--I don't know--Catholicism? One only spots the other Romans when one's practiced it oneself?"

The colossal stupidity of Viv, who nearly dies from an abortion because of her affair with a married man, isn't mitigated for me until the final few pages, when I meet Reggie as she does, for the first time, and he tells her within minutes of their meeting that he's married, some minutes after she's already fallen in love. Perhaps I'm not enough of a forgiving sort, because knowing why and how it could happen didn't make the sordidness of the first part of this novel any more palatable to me after the revelations occur.

The promise of first meeting on the last page does not outweigh the sadness of what is left on the first page, the opening image of a woman "whose clocks and wrist-watches have stopped, and who tells the time, instead, by the particular kind of cripple arriving at her landlord's door." The Night Watch weaves together several long, sad stories; I can think of only one good reason for wallowing through its pages, and that's to appreciate the extent to which we've made the lives of people like its homosexual characters marginally less miserable in the 60 years that have passed since the time period in which the events of the novel unfold.


edj3 said...

You're just reading all sorts of uplifting books this week, aren't you?

Ana S. said...

This book completely broke my heart, but I still loved it. Kay's final "I thought I'd lost you", or the scene where the young man's story is finally explained...aargh. Sarah Waters is merciless.

Anonymous said...


Anna said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I'm intrigued by the structure, how you think one thing about a character and then you read to the beginning and it could change your opinion of him or her.

I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

Diary of an Eccentric

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, yes. There's one more bleak one I've read (review tomorrow) and then I'll move on to some funny SF books in the new year!

Nymeth, I loved your review and did like the novel, but think I'll be able to love it more--at least feel closer to the characters--after a second reading.

Anna, I'm thrilled to have a review listed on the War Through the Generations list!

Jenny said...

I'm sorry you didn't like it better! This is one of my favorites of Waters books - I'm getting teary just thinking of some parts of it. But my mum had the same reaction you did, couldn't get interested in the characters and found the whole thing depressing.