This novel, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, should not work. It’s written backwards, for crying out loud. But it does. It’s a tense read, full of questions about how people end up where they are in life—and if they might have avoided their fates if they’d just made different choices. We start in 1947, then moved back to 1944 and 1941, as we watch four Londoners fail to find happiness after and during the Blitz. Is happiness possible of any of them? We don’t know until the end of the book at the beginning of these characters’ stories.
I got the sense that all four of the protagonists were perversely happier during the war. In 1947, they seem stuck where they were when the war ended or feel like anything they do know is so much less important than what they were doing during the war. Kay, especially, feels at loose ends. She used to drive an ambulance and help bombing victims. She had a lover, Helen. Now, she spends her days walking around London. Helen, who fell in love with someone else during the war, now makes matches for people who expect miracles and feeling jealous about her new lover’s actions. She used to help bombing victims with grants and rehousing. Viv is dissatisfied with her whole life, when she used to enjoy getting away with her married lover, Reggie, and work as a typist for the Ministry of Food. Duncan, who is actually doing better than he was during the war when he was in prison, is stuck caring for an old man and working below his skill level to keep his record secret.
The 1947 section takes up almost half the book before jumping back to 1944. In 1947, most of the characters feel they should be happy. After all, they’re no longer dodging German bombs or living in prison. But they’re not. When we move back to 1944, everyone except Duncan is much happier. Kay is happy with Helen and is very happy with her ambulance job. Helen is finding new happiness with Julia. Viv hasn’t yet had the metaphorical stuffing knocked out of her and Duncan is not afraid all the time.
When the novel jumps back to 1941, the shortest part of the book, I wanted to yell at the characters. I knew the mistakes they would make. I knew how it would all end up. They’re all so damn young in 1941. They had no idea they what the people they were meeting would bring them in the future. Even though their country is at war, this is the moment when their lives are nothing but possibilities.
The Night Watch is a very emotional read, not all of it pleasant. It’s hard to see people suffering for what turned out to be mistakes. The brilliance of this book comes from the writing structure. I’ve read other books by Waters, but I think this one is the most masterful. In Affinity and Fingersmith, Waters deployed twists to keep me guessing to the end. In The Paying Guests, the most conventional of her books, I think, she still had me on tenterhooks, wondering about what would happen next. But with The Night Watch, telling the story backward had me viewing the characters in a way that I don’t think I could have if it had been told chronologically. This is truly amazing writing.