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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.) 


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