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The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

After Fingersmith, I was on the fence about reading another Sarah Waters book. I genuinely enjoyed Fingersmith and I loved her storytelling in theory, but because of my American culture and my lack of knowledge about the age, the book was very difficult. I heard many things about her other books being even more difficult for a bloody Yank, so I did not pick up Affinity or Tipping the Velvet when I passed them in the bookstore. At the library one afternoon, however, I stumbled upon The Night Watch, which immediately interested me because it was about World War II, one of my favorite eras. I couldn't help picking it up and starting it in the drive-through on my way home.

The Night Watch tells the story of a half-dozen Londoners caught up in the disaster and aftermath of World War II. In 1947, families and couples have been torn apart, lives drastically ruined, and we see snippets of just where each person has landed: Kay in a boarding-house owned by a Scientologist; Duncan living with Mr. Mundy, an elderly uncle who may not be his uncle at all; Helen, caught up in her affair with Julia, a published author; Vivien, working as an office girl. But rather than moving forward, the story trips backwards, taking the reader on a mad-cap journey not through what will be, but rather, what has been.

Many books that follow the "first part last" formula are awkward and stumble over themselves due to the form. Authors don't want to give too much away and end up building half-formed stories that never really jive. This is completely untrue for The Night Watch. Waters doesn't fear opening up her characters and revealing too much, and thusly, the depth of emotion the reader experiences from moment one is superb. The book opens with Kay, who seems less-than-sane, and by the end of a single chapter has moved fluidly through every character, allowing snippets of their lives and their private hells. No character falls into the trap of being emptily happy or vacantly sad; the situations and emotions are deep and always complex.

But more than that, the characters grow through their backwards-evolution into people you, as a reader, are horrified to leave when you arrive at the last page. Actions that seem meaningless are explained, and the powerful moments are expanded into beautiful and often bittersweet scenes of life in 1943 and 1941. The least sympathetic characters in 1947 become the most sympathetic, and the most hopeless characters find hope, all in the backwards passage of time. With any other story, the evolution would seem strange, but for The Night Watch, it's so fitting that you don't realize how much you've learned until your heart cries out to yet another character and you're heartbroken to read the last page. The last hundred pages, especially, fly by, but despite ending at the beginning, the tale never feels unfinished.

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buecherwald
the forest-dweller

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