The great thing about a Sarah Waters novel is the way she transports us to another time and place. She presents a fully realized, richly detailed world — a world inhabited by lesbians. What could be better? The Night Watch is Waters’ fourth novel and like her previous books it’s about a period as well as the individual characters and the elaborate storylines in which they are embroiled.
The book opens in London, UK in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. The city is a bombed-out mess of crumbling architecture, the economy is fragile and its inhabitants are attempting to adjust to “normal” life. Waters introduces a group of loosely connected characters who are struggling with post-war reality and the monotony of everyday life.
There’s Helen and Julia whose relationship is on shaky ground partly because of the pressures of living in the closet and partly because of Helen’s intensifying jealousy. There’s Kay who hasn’t recovered from the breakup of her relationship and can’t cope with the loss of her adrenaline-charged wartime job as an ambulance driver. Vivian is Helen’s coworker and she’s stuck in a relationship with a married man and seems incapable of moving forward. Then there’s Duncan, Viv’s brother, who spent the last four years of the war in prison and now lives with Uncle Horace, an arthritic Christian Scientist and a retired prison guard.
After introducing the characters, Waters changes gears and takes us back to 1944 when nightly bombing raids were a regular occurrence and there was no such thing as ordinary life. Curfews, blackouts, sirens, shortages of everything from coffee, fruit and meat to alcohol were the norm. Waters does an amazing job of conveying the tension of life on the edge during a time when people were quite literally waiting for the next bomb to fall.
The final section, set in 1941, fills in gaps in the characters’ stories — how Viv met the married man, for instance, or why Duncan ended up in prison. Even though we know how the stories end right from the beginning, the momentum of the novel is tremendous as it reaches its conclusion and sends the reader back to the opening chapters. The novel has just the right amount of ’40s melodrama and doomed romance along the with the history lesson; it’s a fabulous story and a great read.