The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

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The Night Watch

Five words from the blurb: Londoners, 1940s, streets, secrets, liaisons

The Fingersmith is one of my favourite books so I had high expectations for this one. The Night Watch wasn’t quite in the same league, but I was impressed by Waters’ ability to bring war-torn London to life.

The Night Watch begins in 1947 and goes backwards in time, showing how WWII affected four Londoners. It was a fairly quiet book, concentrating on the relationships and emotions of ordinary people living within the capital.

Every scene was vividly described and the characters were all well developed. I’ve read lots of books about WWII, but this was the first to really make me understand what daily life was like for those who weren’t fighting on the front line.

The period detail was fantastic and it was especially nice to recognise the places in London and to learn how landmarks that I am familiar with were utilised or damaged during the war. The resilience of the characters and their attitude to the ever-present danger of the bombings felt accurate and it was nice to see positive stories layered with the darker ones.

She’d never thought of that before, about all the secrets that the war must have swallowed up, left buried in dust and darkness and silence. She’d only ever thought of the raids as tearing things open, making things hard.

The only negative was the lack of forward momentum.  I’d heard a lot about the amazing backwards structure of this book, but I’m afraid I wasn’t impressed by it. I felt that it would have been stronger with a conventional timeline as the reversal seemed like a gimmick.

Overall this was a beautifully researched piece of historical fiction, packed with atmosphere. I’d have preferred a stronger narrative, but it is still an impressive book and I recommend it.


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  1. Annabel says:

    I loved the backwards reveal in this one – my favourite of hers so far. Glad you enjoyed it still though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, It is interesting to find out which Waters book everyone likes best. I think Fingersmith is hard to beat as I love twists and Victorian atmosphere, but I can see why this slower, more modern book appeals to others more.I look forward to comparing notes on her next one :-)

  2. zarline says:

    What you say about the wartime details is exactly what I felt when I recently read Blackout from Connie Willis. This latter book was unfortunately a bit repetitive and a bit simple sometimes. The Night Watch has been waiting in my bookshelf for quite some months; I now can’t wait to discover it.

    1. Jackie says:

      zarline, I think I read Blackout (I read a book by Willis set during the war, but can’t remember the title) I found that book overly simple too. Night Watch is of far higher quality – I think you’ll enjoy it!

  3. Sandy says:

    I had a weird reaction to this book. First, I had no idea what it was about and expected gothic and spooky, which is what Waters does so well. This is so NOT gothic and spooky. But it is beautiful and heartbreaking. The backwards storytelling confused me, at least at first. But after I finished it, and had a chance to think about it, it grew on me. See how you feel over the next few weeks.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It is good to know that it grew on you. Hopefully I’ll find my appreciation growing too. I’m with you on the gothic though – I far prefer her writing when she takes it in that direction :-)

  4. tanya says:

    This is actually my favorite Sarah Waters book, but for that is all because of the time period. I’m not much of a fan of historical fiction, but WWII I love, so she got me there.

    1. Jackie says:

      Tanya, It is sad, but I’ve over-dosed on WWII at the moment and so it takes a lot for a book on the subject to excite me. This book just about managed it, but that is probably the reason I didn’t fall in love with it. Glad you appreciated it more than I did!

  5. Kailana says:

    This was actually the first book I ever read by Sarah Waters, so it gets a special spot even though I think Fingersmith was the better book. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Kailana, That is the main problem with reading the best book first! I almost wish I hadn’t read Fingersmith yet – then I’d have all that twisty-ness to come and wouldn’t keep comparing all her books to it!

  6. Laura T says:

    I suspected you might not enjoy the backwards telling (I adored it, but then I love flashbacks, unreliability, and general experimentation with memory and time!) but glad you liked this one anyway. I think this is my favourite of Waters’ novels, and that it contains some of her strongest characters.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I agree that this book contained some fantastic characters. I don’t mind flashbacks or unreliability, but experimentation is something I often struggle with. Waters is normally good with plot and so that is why I was probably a little bit disappointed with this one. Glad you loved it!

  7. You know, I loved the backwards narrative for the first two sections of the book, but then I thought the final section was a let-down. It felt like it was just going through the motions of finishing out the book, without revealing anything new.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I agree with you. The final section didn’t add anything and that is why I think it would have been better (and more interesting) at the beginning of the book. I think the momentum would have been better if the whole thing had been in chronological order. The story was too straightforward to justify the backwards structure.

  8. I’ve read all of her books except this one, and I’m hoping to read it before her new book comes out in the fall. The WWII setting is a bit off-putting as I’ve really overdosed on that time period, but I love her writing so much I’m sure I’ll like it anyhow. My favorite is still Tipping the Velvet, but I’ve also liked all her other books a lot.

    1. Jackie says:

      threegoodrats, Yes, WWII is getting far too common. Waters does put a slightly different angle on things, but I wish she’d write more books set further in the past. Hope you enjoy this and her new one :-)

  9. Mystica says:

    I read this a while ago but found it slow going. Did finish it though.

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