Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch

Our private love trembles to be enough
Where no rituals reward our desire;
Shy and weary we battle
For how we are
And map out shorter, safer routes
Through forbidden territories
Which grow large,
More dangerous.

– Cherry Smyth, ‘Private Love’

Being in love, especially when you don’t dare acknowledge it, is a bit like being in a war zone. There’s the same sense of risk, the same apprehension of loss, the same fear of being found out, of being caught unprotected. There’s the terror of knowing that at any moment the truth could come dropping from the sky and utterly destroy you – and the secret thrill of acknowledging that possibility to yourself. There’s the constant weariness of the extra effort required, and underneath it, a deeper apprehension of how fleeting your time is, and how important it is that you seize the day, hold on to whatever pleasure it affords you. And even as you suffer and cry out for relief, there’s the certain knowledge that your life will never seem this vivid, this meaningful, ever again.

‘All is fair in Love and War’ we are told. But the truth is that nothing is fair in Love, or in War. The very concept of justice ceases to exist. The passion that drives us to arms, or into them, knows nothing of fair play, nothing of right or wrong – it exists only to feed itself, and its entire force is a kind of hunger, what Yeats memorably called ‘a lonely impulse of delight'[1]. If we persevere in our love and in our hatred, if we continue to fight and embrace against all odds, it is only out of a kind of perverse determination, a sort of pure will. Calculation does not enter into this, these are acts of authentic heroism.

And it is precisely this heroism that Sarah Waters’ exquisite new novel, The Night Watch, is about. Ostensibly, The Night Watch is about four people – three women and a man – living in London during, and just after, World War II. It is the story of how they survive those years, emerging from them badly scarred, but managing, somehow, to cling to their shattered lives. It is, on the surface, simply a novel about their grief and their courage.

But hidden behind their simple, almost too familiar stories, secret as a code, is a much grander novel about the mysteries of forbidden love: about the ways in which we come to desire those we are not supposed to – other women, other men – and how this love of ours overpowers us, betrays us, makes us both less and more than we were, less and more than we could be. It is a story of the first accidents by which two strangers come to recognise a common need in each other, how they discover ways to relate to each other, evolve simulacrums of relationships to take the place of the connections society will not allow them, and discover too late that even these ‘artificial’ relationships can have feelings that are much too real, and that the pain you feel is heightened, not lessened, by the fact that other people won’t recognise it. It is a novel about how terrible it is when love ends – how awful it is to be the more loving one, the one who gets left behind, but also how monstrous it is to be the one leaving. This is not a story about four people, it is four people about a story; unnameable longing is the key character here, the other players are only the eloquent mirrors in which we see her shape.

Any discussion of the plot of the book is therefore irrelevant. What makes this a compelling book, what makes it, in fact, a true work of art, is the way Waters perfectly marries the substance of the book to its setting, so that both the turmoil of wartime London and the ravaged starkness of its postwar landscape become reflections of the inner struggles of the book’s main characters. It’s as though the war itself, with its air raids, its falling bombs, its searchlights scanning the sky for some elusive enemy becomes an echo of the overall mood of the story, a metaphor for the beleagured love of its protagonists. In less skilful hands than Waters this comparison could easily have become boorish. What, after all, are the ups and downs of some silly love affair compared to the bombs of the Luftwaffe pounding England to debris? But Waters is patient, gentle and eloquent enough to remind us that the intimate can be every bit as damaging as the public, that bullets and bombs are not the only ways to hurt someone, that a personal loss is no less scarring than a general calamity. The result is a novel where private and public anguish resonate off each other, blending seamlessly into a powerful symphony of a novel.

Love, in Waters’ world, is suffering. The real mystery, then, is not how things will turn out from here, but how they got this way in the first place. Why do we continue to cling to these relationships, or to the memory of them, when they cause us little but pain? It is to address that question that Waters chooses to move backwards, rather than forwards in time. The book starts in 1947, then tracks its characters back in time to 1941, showing us, in reverse, how they got to where they were when we first saw them. This is a trick, of course, but an exceptionally clever one. Waters’ characters have no real future; when they look ahead to the days to come their imagination fails them. Instead they are drawn inexorably into the past, into memory. It is all they have left. And the backward running narrative of the book means that we share with them this sense of looking back in sorrow, and gives the novel its graceful, elegaic quality. As the secrets from the character’s pasts become clear, we have the sense of someone picking at old wounds, exposing them once again to the air. And yet, because the novel moves from a time of loss to a time of discovery the overall tone of the book is optimistic, inspite of the story it has to tell. In inverting the despair of her tale, Waters converts it to something like hope, so that we are left, in the end, “unable to believe that something so fresh and so unmarked could have emerged from so much chaos”.

The Night Watch is also a superbly written book. Waters’ prose is clear and lucid in an unfussy way, her story is enticing and her character development psychologically exact. Reading the book I was often reminded of Iris Murdoch – there is the same interest in overlapping narratives, in tangled and evolving relationships as a way of exploring the human soul. Waters has neither Murdoch’s philosophical acuity, nor her obsession with Shakespeare, but for all that she is, I think, the craftier novelist, and a more credible storyteller. Waters can be a deliciously passionate writer when she wants to be, but she is also capable of a great deal of unflinching violence. Some of the confrontations she builds up in the book rank among the best writing I’ve read all this year.
Overall then, this is a beautiful and consummate book, well worth the read. Whether or not it deserves to win the Booker I can’t say, not having read most of the other books on the longlist, but if it did win, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

P.S. This post is part of the 2006 Booker Mela

[1] W. B. Yeats, ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death‘.