- The Night Watch
- Riverhead, 544 pp.
Secrets and Love in Wartime Britain
Sarah Waters’ fourth novel, The Night Watch, is set in 1940s London, during and after the Second World War, and is an innovative departure from her previous three lesbian Victorian historical fictions. Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002) depend on melodramatic scenes of excess and chicanery, with occasional references to postmodern thinking. In comparison, The Night Watch is more constrained in its telling of love stories and secrets. Its tone echoes the view we have, in the 21st century, of rationed wartime Britain and the use of the more distant third-person, rather than the confiding first-person, signals a further diversion from the earlier works.
The structure of The Night Watch is worth remarking upon as it begins at the end in 1947. The second section takes us back to 1944, and the third and final section is set in 1941. The decision to use this type of structure is brave, even foolhardy, because of the problems in pulling it off convincingly, but Waters’ subtlety and restraint in pulling back the layers reveals the extent of her authorial control.
This novel is essentially concerned with five main characters (Kay, Viv, Helen, Julia and Viv’s brother, Duncan) and their separate private lives. The connections between these people are also elemental to the narrative. Coincidence plays a significant role in the unfolding of past events as their lives are shown to overlap. This use of coincidence has been a feature of Waters’ previous novels, but this time she uses it casually, and as an extra element, rather than for the purposes of manipulating the plot out of hand as was deemed necessary in a melodrama such as Fingersmith.
The love stories of Kay, Viv and Helen are central and, as the narrative traces back to 1941, we learn how their present views of relationships have been shaped by these past events. As with her previous novels, Waters continues to use lesbian relationships as a main focus of the narrative, but shifts away to examine the affair between Viv and Reggie, and the horrific illegal abortion she undergoes to spare her father from further shame.
Repression becomes a touchstone as many of the characters keep a secret or carry a weight of shame. The converse of this theme of fear of discovery is the examination of bravery. This is most notable in the second and third sections which are, necessarily, concerned with the bombing of London. A re-evaluation of the definition of courage is undertaken and is perhaps most poignant in the prison scene, where Duncan’s cell mate, conscientious objector Fraser, asks himself if he is ‘simply a – a bloody coward’ when he is overwhelmed by the fear of death. The deconstruction of received morality, of what is to be brave or selfish in this time of heightened emotions, is also examined when Helen considers the effect the war has had on her ethics: ‘In the first blitz, she’d tried to help everyone; she’d given money to people, sometimes, from her own purse. But the war made you careless. You started off, she thought sadly, imagining you’d be a kind of heroine. You end up thinking only of yourself.’
The reason for Duncan’s imprisonment is one of the well-kept secrets of the novel and is only (partially) explained in the third section. This use of the hidden truth and the hints at the unspoken strengthen the evocation of the period, where loose lips could potentially sink ships, and walls had ears. When revelations are made, they are, more often than not, as subdued as the repressed tone permits and this allows the novel to maintain the same pace throughout.
Despite this steady pace, Waters still enables the readers to see how the war also had a liberating effect on women such as Kay. Her gallantry and masculine demeanour was of use during the bombings whilst she worked as an ambulance driver, but in the beginning of the novel, in 1947, it is clear that with the return to peace time her short hair and male clothing are once more worthy of ridicule.
As with all of Waters’ novels, The Night Watch has been praised by critics for the attention to detail and meticulous research. This work stretches beyond the limits of the previous three, though, and is certainly her most impressive to date. Her control in depicting the central characters gradually is in itself an indicator of skilful writing. As this is also combined with a believable and interested evocation of period and place, this novel must be recommended highly.