The final book I read in 2010 – deftly added to the list I posted a couple of days ago – was Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. This is my third Waters novel, and this year was the year of Third Time Lucky (c.f.: Evelyn Waugh; Muriel Sparks) – but not, as it happened, with Waters. That sounds like one of my shortest reviews, doesn’t it? Sorry, folks, but I’m not stopping there… After quite liking Affinity back in 2003 or 2004, I loved The Little Stranger this summer – and if it hadn’t been for that frustrating ending, it would have been one of my favourite reads this year. But I had caught the Waters bug, and my post-Christmas read was The Night Watch, only approx. four years after everyone else.
For those who haven’t read this already, I’ll give you a quick overview. The unusual angle of The Night Watch is that it is told backwards. Events kick off in 1947, and work their way backwards to 1941, stopping off in 1944. That’s not as many stepping stones as I expected, when I read various reviews of this novel in 2006, when it was published, and it does rather put the novel between two stools. On the one hand, there are all sorts of clues laid down regarding past events (further on in the narrative); on the other hand, since there are only three sections – and the final one is very short – it feels a bit like Waters didn’t let herself experiment quite enough. Al this leads me, if you’re not careful, to start talking about sjuzhet and fabula, or histoire and recit, if we’re getting all theoretical. Apologies if this is known already, but quick crash course in a bit Russian Formalism: ‘fabula’ is the chronological series of events; ‘sjuzhet’ is the way this is arranged in a narrative. So Waters has her sjuzhet all in a twist.
Which all means that Waters could be a little self-conscious when she writes this:
“I go to the cinema,” said Kay; “there’s nothing funny about that. Sometimes I sit through the films twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that’s just me…”But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are plenty of characters, and plenty of things going on, in The Night Watch. Sarah Waters being Sarah Waters, quite a lot of the novel is about being a lesbian in wartime (I loved the if-you’re-in-the-know reference to ‘Quaint Irene’ from Mapp and Lucia as the name of a boat) – and four of the central characters are lesbians, who seem to all be in love with each other at various stages of the novel. Well, one of them – Mickey – appears to be immune to the charms of Helen, Julia, and Kay, but they are all embroiled with one another. To be honest, I didn’t find any of the female characters particularly well delineated – throw in Viv, Helen’s colleague at a sort of post-war dating agency, and they all rather blurred into one. Even Julia’s novelistic career didn’t help me remember which one was which until we were a hundred or so pages in.
Not so the men. Viv’s brother Duncan is doing a menial job in a factory, and has a surprise reunion with Robert Fraser. Duncan’s naive, bulky uncertainty and Robert’s confident charm are done very well – but the reader has no idea what sort of reunion is taking place. Were they colleagues, comrades-in-arms, or romantically involved? I couldn’t possibly tell you, of course…
I’m being a bit critical, so I shall redress the balance – Waters’ structure is often done very well. The careful laying of clues, and all manner of mysterious events, lead to plenty of gasp-moments in the second half. Obviously I shan’t reveal these, but the secret passing of a ring; curious Uncle Horace; and whispers of infidelity are all clues to watch out for… and lead to satisfying ‘oh, right’ moments later.
But as with The Little Stranger, which was almost all compelling reading but had a dud 100 pages, The Night Watch is longer than it needs to be, and drags occasionally. At her best, Waters can tear a story along – but at her worst, it feels rather self-indulgent and unedited.
And then… I feel a bit mean, quoting this bit, as it’s the worst offender – but:
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you happy?”
“Happy?” Viv blinked. “I don’t know. Is anybody happy? Really happy, I mean? People pretend they are.”
“I don’t know either,” said Helen, after a moment. “Happiness is such a fragile sort of thing these days. It’s as though there’s only so much to go round.”Do people talk like this? Did people ever talk like this – except in novels? It’s the sort of thing 1930s plays are scattered with, but I doubt it ever spilled over into read life…
But I’m only picking all these holes because I’m trying to work out why The Night Watch got shortlisted for all sorts of awards. There is so much to like in Waters’ novel, and it was definitely compelling reading much of the time. Writing the narrative backwards is a good idea executed without pretension, but also perhaps without reaching its potential. But somehow, for me, Waters missed the mark. The Little Stranger was very nearly a brilliant novel. The Night Watch was very nearly a very good novel. I’ve not read all of Waters’ novels, but… is she destined to always fall short from her potential? Or am I a lone voice in the wilderness? Fans of Waters – convince me!