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Reverse Chronology and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 Reverse Chronology and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I wonder what it is that makes authors inclined towards not so much narrative progression, but a narrative reflection, or even a regression. Christopher Priests'The Glamour, which I read earlier this year, involves the recreation of the pasts of two characters through their own conflicting, contradictory memories: its about a past or pasts made present. Kazuo Ishiguros'The Remains of the Day, which I read not long after, involves a sort of braided narrative where a character, in what is a painful act of self-deception, looks back on his past in order to determine how things have become the way they are.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters does something similar, although even more explicitly so. Divided into three parts, it travels back from the 1947 setting of part one to the 1941 of the third part, slowly tracing the meetings and liaisons and links between a half dozen or so characters living in WWII London. And yet, although I adored both'The Glamour'and'The Remains of the Dayand perhaps just as much for that chronological creativity as in spite of itThe Night Watch fell short for me.

You have no idea how disappointed I am to write that. Perhaps as disappointed as you to read it, because I know that this is a book that I should love, and really, its one that I wanted to love. Waters has been on my to-read list for years, and I picked this one up with tremendous anticipation. But as I read I just couldnt shake the feeling that the reverse chronology approach of the novel undermined the story being told.

The first section of the novel is an aftermath in many ways. Were given a London thats slowly pulling itself back together after the war, and characters who are listless and despondent after all thats gone on. Not just from the exigencies of war itself, but from decisions made during wartime that are largely independent of the war itself. Both the setting and the characters are lost and joyless and ultimately changed by everything thats gone on. And yet though its the readers job to tease out the mystery behind each characters present self and how each character is connected, its not always possible to work up the desire to do so.

Interestingly, theres a surprising degree of likeness amongst each of these apparently distinct characters, and you could spend a good deal of time drawing parallels and connecting the dots between their habits and outlooks and experiences. No matter their situation, theres an overwhelming sense of solitariness and stultification present.

We have Helen and Julia, lovers whose relationship is rocky from the barbs of Helens jealousya jealousy we learn has arisen from her own infidelity, which she expects to see mirrored in her partner. We have Kay, whose connection to Helen and Julie is initially inchoate, and who wanders about the city, lost and bereft and alone. Theres Viv, who seems the odd one out, going about with a married man and looking out for her brother Duncan, who has recently been released from prison and is now living with the much older Mr Mundy.

Although I didnt entirely connect with these shellsfor thats what they are towards the beginning (end?) of the book, I appreciated the jigsaw puzzle that Waters sets out at the beginning of the book. There are hints and suggestions as to how the characters have reached the point that they have, and I found myself admiring the authors ability to provide so much material for the reader to work with without explicitly laying it all out.

Until I reached the second part of the book, and then the third, and my disappointment began to set in. All of my careful guesswork and consideration were for nothing, because'The Night Watchs backwards chronology means that those gaps are filled in. The slippery ambiguities and the maybes and the unknowns are patched up, and whatever mystery there was to these character is lost. Its an approach that might work were there something to unveil, or if it sought to contradict the readers hypotheses, but this doesnt happen. Instead, what does happen is that the reader overtakes the characters: we know more about where things are going than they do. But theres a sense of fruitlessness to that knowledge. How do you end such a book satisfyingly when youre only showing the reader where it all started, and where that starting point is largely known from the beginning?

At one point Kay says:

'Houses, after alllike the lives that were lived in themwere mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.'

And I wonder why, when Waters has given us so many wonderful spaces to work with, that she had to point us in the direction of the bricks.

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Other books by Sarah Waters:

 Reverse Chronology and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 Reverse Chronology and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

 Reverse Chronology and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

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  1. I want to read another Sarah Waters book; I liked Tipping the Velvet. I have Fingersmith and The Little Stranger at home; which one should I read next?

  2. Stephanie /

    I have The Little Stranger on my shelf to read, but havent read anything else by her yet. Apparently this book was quite a digression from her normal style, too.

  3. I thought I would go on a Sarah Waters kick after being floored by The Little Stranger on audio (BTW, important to go into it totally blind, way too many spoilers out there) and immediately purchased Fingersmith, but its been sitting on my shelf for probably over a year now. Too bad about The Night Watch disappointment for you!

    • Stephanie /

      Oh, thats for the tip about The Little Stranger, Laurie! I bought myself a copy for my birthday and was tossing up whether to read that or The Night Watch first. Im looking forward to reading it, as I honestly think that what let this book down was the structure, not Waters skill as a writer. :)

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