Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Welcome again to Brooklyn's online book discussion, Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians are leading these discussions, and each month features a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.

Today we begin a month of discussion of The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. This is also a title on NYC's Summer Reading booklist for adults.

Sarah Waters is an English writer renowned for her detailed and entertaining works of historical fiction. She has been publishing since 1998, with her four novels thus far each winning numerous prizes and accolades. Her first book, Tipping the Velvet, was adapted as a BBC drama in 2002, Fingersmith (2001) was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Waters was named one of Granta's twenty Best of Young British Writers in 2003. Her most recent work, The Night Watch, takes place in the years just after and during World War II and marks the first of her books to depart from a Victorian London setting. Waters began writing novels after doing her PhD thesis on lesbian historical fiction and becoming intrigued about the struggles and passions of queer women of past eras, the late 19th century in particular.

The Night Watch centers around four young Londoners -- Kay, Duncan, Helen, and Vivien -- in different periods in 1947, 1944, and 1941. Rather than take up space going through the plot here, I refer you to the Wikipedia entry for the book.

While there is much to talk about in this, Waters's darkest and most complex novel to date, to begin our discussion, I want to bring up the most obviously unusual aspect of the book -- the reverse narration. Since I had read some reviews (and the summary on the book itself!), I was well aware that the story would move backwards and that the end of the first section (taking place in 1947) would be the end point of the story itself. In other words, the last view we have of the characters comes only a third of the way through the book. I had worried about losing the drive to finish, since I already knew what would "happen" to everyone, but the rich plot and Waters's fine writing meant I had no trouble keeping the book open. In fact, I did a fair amount of flipping back and forth while I read.

What did you think? Did you have trouble following the story as it developed (or "undeveloped")? Why do you think Waters chose to use the reverse narrative?

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elle said...

This book seemed more like intertwining - or unravelling - vignettes. Piecing together the relationships(I kept mixing up Helen and Viv)and finding out everyone's secrets was interesting and I did flip back and forth alot. Was I the only one unsatisfied with Duncan's story?

Anonymous said...

Sarah Waters has turned to the second world war and its aftermath. Having won critical acclaim and a passionate following for her genre of "Lesbian Victorian Romp', as she once chirpily described it, it's a brave move to exchange the petticoats for an austerity cut.
Comparatively to the precedent reading, this book in my opinion let to be desired. Suffice it to say that it misses a lot of je ne sais quoi. Am I the only one seeing
it that way?

Melissa said...

This is my response to Elle's comment -- our Internet connection went down in the afternoon so I could not post it earlier!

Anyway...I didn't have any trouble distinguishing Helen from Viv, though it was striking how, indeed, similar they were. Think of the scene where they're sitting on the fire escape at their job, discussing the war and the coming winter and unhappiness. The main difference between them, of course, is Helen's sexuality. She's average in all other ways -- apolitical, mending her stockings and looking for her pocket of happiness in the world -- but it's the fact that she's a lesbian that puts a barrier between herself and her friends and the rest of society. How would Viv have reacted if Helen had shared her secret? One reflects on how, in different circumstances or a different era (it's better today, but still not without discomfort or even peril), they might truly be friends.

I do agree about Duncan's story, though. I looked over that scene with him and Alec and, while I think Waters does a good job bringing Alec to life, it's still not enough.

Melissa said...

To anonymous -- which of Waters's other novels have you read? I thought Fingersmith was possibly the most satisfying book I've ever read in terms of plot (and the romantic ending doesn't hurt), but I think The Night Watch is a much better book to discuss (which, after all, is my goal in this forum...). What disappointed you about it?

elle said...

Helen and Viv are so weighed down by their secrets that I wonder if sharing would create a stronger bond between them. The fear of being shunned by society because of their illicit relationships is their common ground. Viv's got a married lover, and continues to support a brother jailed for attempting suicide with a man who may have been his lover and who now lives with his former jailer, so having a lesbian for a friend and confidante doesn't seem like such a stretch, really.

cherie said...

I really enjoyed this book a lot. The way in which it worked backwards threw me off whenever I entered a new section, but I really enjoyed it. It was hard because characters I previously had little connection with I felt extremely drawn to at the end, and also felt like I understood the characters in the beginning differently. They seemed to grow in a reverse direction. I want to read this title again, so I can fully get the most out of it.

Melissa said...

An oft-quoted line in reviews of The Night Watch is Kay's to her friend Mickey, in the 1947 section: "Sometimes I go in [to a movie] 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..."

In just the first few pages, we see Kay looking out at Duncan and Mr. Mundy coming up the street ("She liked to see them making their slow way up the street: the man neat and dark-suited as an undertaker, the boy patient, serious, handsome -- like an allegory of youth and age, she thought...") and then Duncan looking up, hoping to catch a glimpse of Kay in her window ("He liked to see Mr Leonard's lodger...He thought she might once have been a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF, something like that: one of those women, in other words, who'd charged about so happily during the war, and then got left over") -- illustrating the way people automatically make connections with strangers, if only in their own minds, and equally the way people never have any idea what the real story is. Waters at least gives us readers the backstories, bit by bit.

Some other authors who have used unusual temporal arcs in their works are Harold Pinter and Anita Shreve (The Last Time They Met) -- see the following articles for details (you must have a valid BPL card to access the full text via our databases:

"Looking Backward: Reversible Time in Harold Pinter's Betrayal Screenplay" (by W. Russel Gray, Journal of Popular Culture, Summer 2001)

"An Affair to Remember, and Remember" (by Janet Maslin, New York Times, Apr 19, 2001)

(Not to mention all the writers who have made use of narrative devices like flashbacks and framing stories!)

Melissa said...

There was an anonymous comment left on a different post: "People's pasts sometimes appear to be more interesting than their futures. Waters's topsy turvy time
scheme is an elegant and profound device which imbues much of the novel with a poignant dramatic irony and turns every incident,however humdrum,into a revelation that helps to illuminate
how her characters became the people they are. However, it does make the first section of the novel
curiously unrooted, as we step into lives that seem to float in limbo. Though it's a struggle for the reader to engage; this listlessness is part of Waters's design. Do you think that her characters are drained, disappointed in the sense of people are struggling on in the aftermath of trauma, a stale existence in which even the headscarves decorated with faded tanks and spitfires are left over from the war?"

Almost all of these lines are actually from the Guardian (UK) review of The Night Watch. But I see your question at the end there...

Melissa said...

Yes, I do think that the characters in 1947 are "are drained, disappointed people struggling on in the aftermath of trauma." Even the wartime scarcity is still in effect two years later.

But there are still glimmers of hope. As I asked in the July 10 post, what will Kay, for one, do next?

elle said...

They all seem shell-shocked and prefer to go about life exactly as it is because they're safe. Fraser is the only one who has the power to be a catalyst of change because he was untouched by the horror of war. He pursues life with an infectious vigor that has already drawn in Duncan and Viv.

Kay...Kay could use some therapy. Maybe the return of her ring (did I miss what the sentimental value of the ring was to her-she always wore it- or was it never explained?) will help her self esteem-someone remembered her kindness and thought enough of her to return it to her.

Anonymous said...

Just finished this a week ago and thought it was great--actually the best of Waters books that I've started, though I may have just grown into a better reader in recent years. Yes, it was dark and a bit depressing, but the construction of the book and attention to the details of the main characters was wholly engrossing. Particularly their yearning--mostly unspoken--for the other people in their lives to do or be something that they aren't or can't be. The war shapes the way these yearnings play out, but you get the sense that these characters are doomed to their tragedies regardless of time or space.

I agree with Elle, it seems that Frasier's character seems more capable of pushing forward--but then again, we don't really spend any time in his head. Perhaps he's struggling with the same theme as well, just behind the scenes?

Jamie said...

I found this book brilliant for a variety of reasons. I saw the central theme as the incredible power we can have, unknown to ourselves, to affect other people's lives positively through simply being kind & compassionate. Both Kay and Duncan gave something of inestimable worth to Viv and Frasier, each in a moment that reverberates through time for the receiver. In times of incredible suffering, in times of brutality and war, what makes it bearable is our caring toward one another when those moments arise. And you'll notice that Kay's gift to Viv gave her the confidence and power to move forward in her life years later.
Waters illuminates the essential humanity of the despised queers of that time. She shows how deeply secrecy erodes relationships and corrodes the fabric of society. She immerses us in the gritty, horrible reality of daily war -- something we personally know too little about, even as our leaders maim and murder with their cruel, misbegotten decisions.
This is a book that has a lot to say to us. I read it several times, and it grows richer. Share it with your friends.

Melissa said...

Some very nice activity in the discussion here -- thanks to all! I just want to re-submit Chris's comment from yesterday, which was made to the most current post but is looking a little lost up there.

I also want to say that this blog has been temporarily "locked" by Blogger, which is cracking down on spam blogs. Unfortunately, the Blogger robots picked up this one as being possible spam. Hopefully this will be resolved in the next couple of days, and as you can see comments (though not new posts) can still be published.

Here is Chris's comment...

"Night Watch" did not compare favorably to "Fingersmith" which was such a great read.

Because the novel was compiled of fragmented bits of information, it was difficult to follow the story and to see any of the characters develop.

The 1940's British setting became tedious for an American reader 60 years after the fact. Even if we didn't live through it, we've all heard and seen plenty about the horrors of WWII. Much of the dialogue and descriptions contained "dated" slang that slowed down the pace of the story rather than being refreshing and unique. The elegance and intrigue of "Fingersmith" was missing.

On a positive note- it was interesting to see both straight and gay women evolve during and after the war. However, the themes of war, and sexuality were not enough to make me look forward to Ms. Waters’ next novel.


Melissa said...

Regarding Kay's ring -- the first mention of it (p. 215-6 in the trade paperback edition; this is the scene where Kay and Mickey are washing up after a night of ambulance work) simply says, "Kay wore a ring of plain gold on her smallest finger, which she never liked to take off."

Jamie, your comment -- I saw the central theme as the incredible power we can have, unknown to ourselves, to affect other people's lives positively through simply being kind & compassionate -- is lovely! I think the flip side, much illustrated in this largely unhappy book, is how we can completely unmoor other people by our actions. I doubt Helen realizes how stalled Kay's life has been in the years since she (Helen) left her, and Alec's inflamed response to his getting called up altered the entire course of Duncan's (admittedly young) life.

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