Title: The Night Watch
Author: Sarah Waters
Publisher: Riverhead Books, an Imprint of Penguin Group
Book Design: Amanda Dewey
Cover Photo: Bill Brandt/Bill Brandt Archives
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, Audio CD, Audible
Page Count: 544
Awards: Man Booker Finalist
The Night Watchers follows several characters from 1941 to 1947: Vivian, Alec, Duncan, Kay, and Helen. It is set primarily in London.
In 1941, Viv is on a train with military men. She meets a soldier, Reggie. He is in an unhappy marriage, and has little time to go home and see his new baby before going overseas. In her earnestness she falls in love with him.
Alec, meanwhile, is frantic. He has received his draft notice. He refuses to fight in a war he does’t believe in. He resolves to kill himself by slashing his throat.
Kay, and ambulance worker, responds to an air-raid call. She arrives and finds an young woman caught underneath rubble. Kay helps the young woman, Helen. Kay soon realizes she’s smitten with the girl.
By 1944 things have progressed. Viv is working as a typist. She has more-or-less regular assignations with Reggie at hotels. She realizes she is pregnant. He gets her a clandestine abortion. Viv has a hemorrhage and Reggie calls an ambulance. Kay arrives. Viv begs them to be silent. She is afraid that the doctors will learn about the abortion. Kay tells the nurses that Viv suffered a miscarriage during one of the air raids.
After his suicide attempt, Duncan is imprisoned in Wormwood, and Viv and her father visit him once a month. Duncan’s time is juxtaposed between the defeatist demeanour of Mr Mundy, a kind prison guard, and the free-thinking, free-acting attitude of another prisoner, Frasier.
Kay spends nights cleaning up after air raids. She lives with her lover, Helen, whom she sees as someone she must protect. One night a call comes for a raid that has occurred on her street. She panics and runs to where her flat was, weeping at her loss. One of her co-workers points out Helen nearby, and she runs to Helen ecstatic and crying.
Helen is working for the government. She meets Julia, a woman who was once acquainted with Kay. Julia invites her to tea, and Helen falls in love with her. They discuss how loving, protective, and yet tiresome Kay can be.
One night Helen is unable to sleep and goes to Julia’s. They walk around, and when another air raid alarm is sounded, they hide. They make love for the first time. Their affair continues for some weeks. Helen decides she must tell Kay. Julia straightens out her past for Helen: it was Julia, not Kay, who was in love with the other, while the latter didn’t feel the same. Helen feels used, but still finds she can’t help loving Julia. They dress and make their way to her place, to find Kay sitting on the rubble, weeping.
After the war, Kay spends her time in her room, watching her landlord’s patients come and go. It turns out that Kay is wealthy and her residence in Lavender Hill is a disappointment to her friend, Mickey. Mickey is kind and considerate, even when Kay tells her how she spends her evenings: going to the cinema. She begins to share an illicit encounter with a woman, but stops herself in fear of Mickey’s disapproval.
Helen and her assistant Viv run a match-making agency near Bond Street. Helen is jealous of Ursula because Julia has been spending a lot of time with her. One night, Helen comes home and finds the house empty. Helen works herself into a frenzy, until her lover finally arrives cheerful, and drunk. Helen picks a fight with Julia.
After work, Viv sets off to meet her brother Duncan, who lives with an older gentleman. The three of them meet weekly for dinner. Viv ends the night and heads for the railway station, but she doesn’t go home to her father’s, instead, she hops inside a car with Reggie.
Helen and Viv get a visit from Robert Fraser, Duncan’s cellmate. He talks to them about Duncan. Viv dismisses Fraser, feeling he thinks she hasn’t done enough to help Duncan. She explains that he doesn’t know everything. Fraser goes with Viv to the cinema, where Viv hopes to see Kay again. The two wait, and when Viv sees Kay, Fraser tells her to run to Kay. Viv hands Kay a gold band and returns.
Fraser visits Duncan for dinner. One night, he doesn’t show up; Duncan is quite upset. Duncan decides to sneak out that night to go to Fraser’s, regardless of Mr Mundy’s disapproval. He arrives at Fraser’s window, and the two chat. He learns that Fraser didn’t come to see him because he’d got caught up with his date with Viv.
The book is unusual in that it is told in reverse order, beginning in 1947 and working back to 1941. In this regard, it resembles the movie “Memento”. While the plot summary may seem disjointed, the author succeeds in making us both identify with the characters and follow the events, even in “reverse” order.
Critical praise has been positive; it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Despite the fact that many of the characters are gay, it is not a “homosexual” book; it simply explores love, loss, and the restrictions of convention.
World War II as you’ve never imagined it before.
Information about the Author
Sarah Waters was born in Wales. She describes her family as idyllic, safe and nurturing. Her father, encouraged her to build and invent. Waters has said, “When I picture myself as a child, I see myself constructing something; I used to enjoy writing poems and stories, too.”
After Milford Haven Grammar School, Waters went to the University of Kent, receiving a BA in English Literature, an MA from Lancaster University, and a PhD from Queen Mary, University of London. Her PhD thesis served as inspiration and material for future books. As part of her research she read 19th-century pornography. Her influences are also found in the classics of Victorian literature, such as Dickens and the Brontes.
Before writing novels, Waters worked as an academic, earning a doctorate and teaching. Her fiction work is very research-intensive, which is an aspect she enjoys. Waters was briefly a member of the long-running London North Writers circle, whose members have included the novelists Charles Palliser and Neil Blackmore, among others.
Waters lives in a top-floor Victorian flat in Kennington, south-east London.
History, Gay Studies
How does shame and guilt drive us to suicide, or worse?
Is attempting suicide even a worthwhile “statement”?
Whom do you think is in a position similar to homosexuals in the 1940s?
Reading Level/Interest Age
Interest Level: Grade 12 and up
Strong Lesbian and Gay content and themes