Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction

I’m really not quite sure why I didn’t read this book when it was first published in 2006, an error I only realised when I read the fabulous The Paying Guests last year, as I had read and enjoyed all of her previous books. This was her first departure to a more modern setting, that being the 40s with all the details of London life during the war.

Part One starts in 1947 where we meet the lonely Kay, Viv and Helen who both work in a dating agency, and Viv’s brother Duncan who we find out was imprisoned but what for, we don’t find out until much later. The characters are fantastically painted, I felt that I was on the roof with Viv and Helen exchanging the very edges of their secrets whilst having a cigarette during their lunch break. Likewise the scenes of Duncan working at a factory joining in the banter as best as he can, then returning home to Uncle Horace, gave a real insight into his character. As in all of Sarah Waters novels, there are plenty of homosexual characters, but I wouldn’t say that the book is ‘about’ that, rather it deals with the human emotions of desire, guilt, betrayal and regret, the sexuality of the participants matters little although in this novel we do get a sense of the secrecy and deception that was a necessary part of life at this time.

Part Two then takes us back in time to 1944, with rationing and bombs at their peak we see Kay as a practical ambulance driver whilst Vivian works as a secretary at the Ministry of War and Helen works at the town hall. The changes that have been made in Kay’s life in the intervening years is particularly shocking; in three years she has gone from playing an important role to being reduced to sitting at home watching the world go by from her window.

Part Three takes us further back again to 1941 where we finally learn why Duncan was imprisoned and how the lives of the main characters became intertwined. The three parts as a whole show us the consequences of actions in the past impacting lives in the present in a heart-breaking way.

Knowing the ending, or at least part of it, before you get to the beginning of a story lent this book a peculiar feeling of poignancy, as well as inevitably giving the reader a few ‘ahh’ moments as the actions of our main characters begin to make a little more sense once we know what had happened in the past. This way of revealing the story also meant that I wanted to go back to the beginning, willing the 1947 part to go just that little bit further, to give me some sense of completeness to the character’s lives that hold the promise of a future never to be told.

This isn’t a fast moving book and nor does it have any great mystery, the delight is in the assured writing style, the everyday nuggets that in lesser books I would term padding, but for some reason for this author each scene adds something to the atmosphere that unfolds and so despite being a fairly long book, I certainly didn’t feel it was too long – I was left wanting more. The depiction of a ruined London was so evocative, I could easily imagine myself hearing the bombs and seeing, and smelling the fires that came in their wake. The London streets seen through the eyes of someone walking in the darkness of the blackout had a truly eerie feel to them. As always Sarah Waters has done her research, and for anyone with an interest in this period of history her acknowledgement page contains a huge list of books that she used to make sure the scenes that she so wonderfully bought to life were based on fact.

I still feel that The Paying Guests is my favourite of this author’s books to date, but this is definitely a book that I can quite easily see myself re-reading in the future to further explore the beautiful and often tragic narrative. This isn’t a book for readers who want plenty of action and I did find it got off to a bit of a slow start, but as a whole this is one that I will remember and ponder over for some time to come.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

38 thoughts on “The Night Watch – Sarah Waters

  1. I love Sarah Waters writing and I totally agree knowing the ending made this a very poignant read. I haven’t read The Paying Guests yet but I have a copy in my TBR – I’m really excited to read it if you think its her best yet!


  2. I really enjoyed your review of The Night Watch, Cleo. Waters is such a wonderful writer, isn’t she? Like you, I loved the atmospheric portrayal of London in this story, it felt so true to life. Thank you for reminding me of a favourite novel.


  3. I adored this one; I think it’s my favourite, although The Paying Guests is second. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Her sense of place and atmosphere is so strong you get a real feel of how awful the bombing was, and the terrible sights Kay saw as an ambulance driver.


  4. Excellent review as ever, Cleo. Interesting how the time line works here. Instead of going back and forth, it goes progressively backwards. I do enjoy books like that, that show us history, and it’s an added bonus that there’s good character development as well. Glad you enjoyed this.


  5. I picked up a copy of this one right after reading Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, and I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten to it yet (or Affinity either). I’m so glad to see your review and that you loved it. I’ll try to bump it higher on my priority list!


  6. I’m a big Sarah Waters fan, although still haven’t got round to “The Paying Guests” yet. I got as far as picking up a copy in a branch of Waterstones as it was part of their 3 for 2 offer but then I found another 3 books I wanted which would make the offer redundant. I couldn’t bring myself to go for 6 for 4 so I put them all back and left the shop! But I will return….. I’m glad you enjoyed “The Nightwatch”. This is a very good review.


    1. I don’t think Waterstones realise what trouble they cause us booklovers with those offers – I had to smile when you said you’d left without any as I’ve done that too – if you love The Night Watch I’m sure you’ll love The Paying Guests! And thank you kind sir for your lovely words.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve only read one Sarah Waters book Fingersmith which was very good. I saw the TV adaptation of The Night Watch and also quite fancy The Paying Guests too. Too many books out there!


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