The Night Watch

Written by Sarah Waters
Review by Ann Lyon

I must admit to an instinctive lack of sympathy for this book. First, I am wary of books from an organisation which only publishes books by women. More fundamentally, having a grandfather who worked his passage from British Columbia to join up in 1914 and a father disappointed to be still under age for service in 1945, I am impatient towards a book set in wartime in which no central character is in the Forces or has any desire to be. Indeed, one resorts to desperate measures to avoid call-up. Third, with the self-righteousness of the livelong non-smoker, I have little empathy for characters who are constantly lighting up. And that was all without the author’s reputation for explicit lesbian bed scenes. However, The Night Watch has plenty to interest.

The book opens in 1947, when the four main characters, three women and a man, are living somewhat aimless lives in the aftermath of conflict. There is a sense that something strange is going on in relation to Duncan, who, apparently able-bodied and in full possession of his mental faculties, works in a sheltered workshop for disabled people. Duncan spent much of the war in prison; we assume that this was as a conscientious objector, but begin to wonder. The scene then shifts to the early months of 1944, to the now largely forgotten ‘Little Blitz’, in which Kay finds purpose in driving an ambulance, Vivien works in a typing pool at the Ministry of Food and Helen also has some vague clerical job. All four lives intertwine; more questions develop in the minds of readers. It is only when the scene shifts again to 1941, that the secret at the heart of the book is finally revealed.

Worth reading? Yes.