A few weeks ago, I was on the hunt for a new book to read, but just couldn’t find anything that grabbed my attention. I wasn’t in the mood to re-read an old favourite and was struggling to find inspiration from my choices at home, when I happened upon a copy of The Night Watch amongst the treasure-trove of books in TRO’s office. It was a title that had caught my attention in bookshops in the past, so I set my hopes on it to cure my reading ennui.
Needless to say, I was not disappointed.
Set in 1940s London, the book follows the lives of four individuals whose lives are entwined in a complex web of connections, often unknown to the characters themselves, and gradually revealed to the reader over the course of the novel. Its defining feature is backwards time-travel, with the story beginning in 1947 and moving to 1944 before finishing in 1941. As a result, as soon as you reach the end of the book you want to rush back to the first page and immediately re-read the entire novel again, making the most of the deeper level of understanding you’ve gained about the characters’ motivations and circumstances.
This unusual structure has the effect of changing your feelings about the characters themselves, becoming less sympathetic to those that originally seemed mistreated and finding the possibility of hope for those that appeared to be lost causes. And you will feel strongly about these characters; their trials and tribulations played on my mind to the extent that I even found myself thinking about them when I was sitting on the bus home.
The book reads with the pace of a thriller, despite the fact that you technically know the outcome when you begin. The wartime setting is evocatively realised and you can almost hear the sirens and bombs that made life so much more intense and every experience more heightened. I could feel the tension rising in my chest as secrets are confessed and true feelings exposed against a backdrop of chaos and confusion. In contrast, the peace of post-war 1947 creates a subdued atmosphere; the lives of the characters are no longer in danger, but they are somehow less alive in themselves, repressing their true feelings and lacking a sense of purpose.
Although there were a few plot points that didn’t quite live up to their build-up, Waters is an undeniably skilful writer; some crucial revelations are slipped in with little fanfare or warning and so deliver more powerful a shock. She leaves much unsaid, allowing the reader to gradually piece together the explanations and become immersed in her intricately woven creation.
The Night Watch is a moving and breathless tale of love, loss, and humanity. It is definitely a read I would recommend.