Sarah Waters, The Night Watch

I’ve been eagerly waiting for the paperback edition of this novel, as I am a big fan of Fingersmith (such a smart novel, artistically and intellectually) and was thoroughly entertained by Tipping the Velvet. The Night Watch too was easily readable, deceptively so, I’ve ended up thinking, as I moved through it smoothly only to arrive at the end feeling quite dissatisfied with how I had read it. The backwards chronological structure, for instance, seemed an artificial device, until on a bit of reflection and then with some help from some of the novel’s reviewers, I began to think more about ways it suits the kind of character development Waters seems to be engaged in: it’s a kind of up-ended Bildungsroman in which rather than seeing people growing into themselves, we peel back the layers of their past experience to see what lies beneath the people they have become. Now I wonder if there isn’t a way in which Waters’s approach has, perversely almost, a strong forward momentum for the characters, as we realize how complex and contingent their ‘current’ identities are and how much they (or their situations) have changed over time: instead of seeing them as having arrived, we see them as poised just ahead of their next transformation: their next relationship, their next disappointment or tragedy, their next moment of hope. At the same time, the glimpses of beauty and hope (such as Helen’s face at the end/beginning) are so overlayed with our knowledge of change and (usually) destruction that the overall effect seems more disheartening than otherwise: it’s too bad, I kept thinking, that this moment here had to turn out the way I already know it did. One reviewer commented that the novel needed to be read twice, and I certainly expect it will seem quite different on a second reading, as the characters’ experiences that are presented so elliptically in the first section will feel much more concrete. I like the simplicity of Waters’s prose–also deceptive, as the novel is clearly the result of much research and is effortlessly laden (if that’s not oxymoronic) with period details. But I would also appreciate some exposition, a thicker layer of narrative commentary, even some philosophizing! Waters’s touch is so light that I find it hard to be sure what she thinks is important about the moment she has chosen, or why she develops the kinds of characters and linkages she does. Why write about the 1940s now, for instance? ‘Showing’ is all very well, but (and perhaps this is just the Victorianist in me) I like the author to collaborate more actively with me on these questions; otherwise I have the sensation of having seen or felt a series of images and moments, but I have not grasped a strong idea. For this, a little ‘telling’ would be in order.

I’ll just add that as historical fiction, The Night Watch struck me as wholly convincing.

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