Skip to main content

The Night Watch - Sarah Waters

It seemed quite improbable that I would be able to finish any book this week, but I held my ground and wrapped up The Night Watch last evening. I've been thinking about the book ever since and have realised that the more I brood on it, the clearer it gets to me. 

This was my first novel of Sarah Waters' and I can see why she is such a popular author. The Night Watch is set in the period between 1941 and 1947, effectively straddling the WW II. As I read through the pages, I was astounded at how the author went about from one incident to another, which were all set in a vast range of circumstances - both ordinary and extreme - and noted them almost factually, but still did not undermine the shock factor and imagery. Perhaps, it was the richness of details - which Waters has gone to extreme lengths to describe meticulously - which cushioned the jarring notes the incidents could otherwise have rung. A wealth of research work has gone into the making of this novel and the intimacy of the sights and smells is so genuine, that it almost feels like a dream (or a nightmare, depending). The writing, in short, is very powerful, and in a very subtle way, it scoops you up and drops you gently into the desired environment.

The book is split into three parts, and the narrative slips from 1947 to 1941 in Britain. So we get to see the outcome first and gradually dig our way through to the beginning. In 1947, the atmosphere is one of a civilisation still slightly dazed after the chaos of war and the characters appear to be acting out of consequence rather than towards it. There is something heavy about this part, and as I said before, it was possibly the intricate descriptions which added a touch of the mundane to the account. The second part of the book begins in 1944 and to me, that was the most interesting account. This is the time when things start getting clearer, and hence, is where most of the story lies. The war is a constant, grim setting and there is much more frenzied life to the characters. There is a fair share of the physical brutality of the war and the emotional turbulence of the characters, both of which by way of a very measured abundance, balance out each other remarkably. By the time I had reached the end of the second part, I was reminded of Birdsong, and though the two stories are rather unlike, the treatment seemed similar. The last bit - the one based in 1941 - is the shortest and the clearest. The characters are like fresh buds and as I read on, I was gasping to find out how the last few pieces of the puzzle fit. It ended on a soft note, almost like a happy ending, except that this was hardly the end. 

The characters too, like the smoke, the sky, the stairs and the clothes, have been meticulously described through numerous incidents, and never at one go. As the story progresses (albeit backwards in time), more layers get added to them as it intertwines the paths of three women and a young man. These are ordinary men and women, with a touch of that little extraordinariness that we all possess. Kay is almost selflessly gallant and thrives in the sickening war; Helen is clever and clear-headed; Vivien is a young, well-meaning girl caught in a sticky situation; and Duncan is a young boy trying to cope with his life by feigning normalcy. There are ample shades of grey and plenty of opportunities when you can almost second-guess the nasty outcome, but then the novel is all about hindsight. Also, as with most of the other works of Sarah Waters, lesbian relationships are at the centre of most of the sub-plots, but the author has not dwelt much on the bitter reality of the situation and has rather chosen to blend it with the constant weight of the war. The story is all about love and loss and coming to terms with it, and the characters have been drawn out quite matter-of-factly in that context, in a way which did not lead me to oversympathise with them (except I think Duncan, whose story touched me the most). 

Since I had borrowed the book from the British Council, I had to pack it up and return it today, so that I could be issued my next book in the queue, but for most of the day, I kept remembering snatches of conversations from the story, which seemed to correlate with incidents described much later in the book. This is one of those books that you reread and reread and I'm sure, with every effort, some new nugget of revelation will dawn. And above everything, it has given me a new author to explore. 

Favourite character: Kay Langrish (She possibly gets the benefit of the wild and blindingly vivid descriptions of her night-shift career as the war-time ambulance driver. But that aside, Kay's personality, though suffocating at times, I found very endearing.) 


Popular posts from this blog

Man-Eaters of Kumaon - Jim Corbett

Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 5/5

This one is decidedly a classic, so there is little point in reviewing this book. It is a beautiful one, without doubt. 
Personally, I avoid any form of entertainment (books, movies, plays, anything) which features cruelty - either directly or tacitly - towards animals (I have not yet seen any of the Planet of the Apes movies, Ant Man was uncomfortable too). So deciding to read this book took a certain degree of convincing. 
Much credit goes to the beautiful cover of the book. This one is an Aleph Classics (co-founded by David Davidar of The House of Blue Mangoes fame, and Rupa Publication) edition. In terms of sheer elegance, the cover design is unmatched.

The palette concept of jungle green coupled with the late afternoon sun creates an ambiance even before you delve into the pages. I picked out the book from a thin pile on a shelf in the little HigginBothams book-store near Charing Cross in Ooty, one biting winter evening (more on that later), such w…

Higginbothams of Ooty

It took us some time to decipher that the name of the crossroad was Charing Cross. After all, it is an unexpected name for an Indian crossroad in Tamil Nadu, and the mildly opinionated chap driving us to our hotel had a heavy accent. Charing Cross turned out to be a triangular enclosure, with an imposing fountain (we later discovered that it was named the Adam's Fountain; it is three-tiered, the second one topped by four very colourful cherubs). Since we had arrived in the middle of the afternoon in the thick of winter, the roads were thronging with people and vehicles. Shops were bustling and business appeared brisk. Our driver skilfully negotiated the traffic as we passed woollens shops, gift houses, eateries, groceries and mobile-phone shops. 
We returned to the market later in the evening, after having deposited our luggage. Both my husband and I had been fending off a nasty bout of flu and needed to restock our now near-empty medicine pouch. Charing Cross in the evening (thi…

Top 10 books to read when you are depressed

Books are handy weapons to stave off blues - be it the dregs of the Sunday evening or a nasty bout of flu. When you are depressed, it takes herculean efforts to shake off the feeling. And I'm not even talking about the more severe, clinical form of depression. I can't get myself to pour myself a glass of water the day after Diwali; on Fridays on the other hand, I am the epitome of eternal sunshine. For such moody, dull days, these top 10 books are the surest way to dust a little sparkle in your life.
1) Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog): This is Jerome K. Jerome at his absolute best. It was published some 130 years back and is still capable of eliciting raucous laughter. It is the honest journal of three young, bumbling flatmates and their dog on a river cruise. Look out for some meandering, pedantic pages, but they offer some relief from the relentless humour. 
2) James Herriot'sDog Stories: If you love animals (and dogs, in particular), this is the ultimate…