Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Night Watch - Sarah Waters (audio)


After listening to and loving The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters this summer, I made a dash to the library to find more of her work. Particularly, I wanted to find the audio of Fingersmith, which is supposed to be her Magnum Opus. While they did not carry that audio (and will now require an interlibrary loan!) they did have The Night Watch. It has been locked and loaded on my iPod for months, and I've just now gotten around to it.

The book starts out post WWII in London, when everything is dark, shabby and in a state of disrepair and rubble. We are introduced to a cast of characters that are loosely related...sort of a six degrees of separation type of thing. There is Viv and Helen, two ladies in their early 30's working for a matchmaking service. Viv is in a long-term relationship with a married man, and is living a life filled with clandestine meetings. Helen is in a relationship with Julia, a writer, and suffers from a lack of confidence in her ability to maintain Julia's interest and affection. Kay is a lonely, masculine woman who wanders the streets aimlessly and listlessly, and who was once involved with both Julia and Helen. Duncan, Viv's "fey-looking" brother, lives a sheltered life with a creepy "uncle", and frequently experiences anxiety issues stemming back to his life in prison during the war, and the death of his best friend. Instantly the reader's mind is filled with questions. What on earth got them to this point? Everything is grey, blanketed with ugliness from the war, an atmosphere you can feel in your bones.

Chronologically, we then turn the clock back to the heat of the battle, in the dead center of WWII in 1944. How does Helen meet Julia? And what of her relationship with Kay? Why is Duncan so damaged, and why was he in prison? How did Viv meet her married lover? The scenes are almost surreal, with the details of lives unfolding while bombs and buildings fall around them, endangering themselves every time they step out of the house. The war forces circumstances upon all of them, as they all try desperately to grab hold of a shred of normalcy and happiness.

Turn back the clock one more time, to 1941. It is here that we get the answers to our questions about the inception of our characters' relationships and their fatal flaws. It is an interesting way to build tension in a novel, to back into the story, from end to beginning. You don't see if often, but when you do, it is brilliant.

This is a highly character-driven novel. While there is action and chaos in the war happening around them, and the setting is highly atmospheric, the characters' lives themselves are outlined in slow detailed conversations, fractured and damaged psyches, and internal struggles. It is a dark, troubling story with personalities that are so well-developed, personalities that are so real, you feel you know each and every one of them as you would a good friend.

Amidst the experience of listening to The Night Watch, I kept asking myself the question "What is the damn plot????" and "What is the point???". I intentionally avoided reading any synopsis of the book, so I felt I was tromping around blind, waiting for something to happen. But the more time I spent with Helen, Kay, Julia, Duncan and Viv, the more I became invested in their welfare. It took me a week just to mull over the story after I'd finished before attempting a review, and found that I became more and more fond of it as time passed. I'm starting to think that Waters has this effect...she works on your subconscious. And of course her prose is a delight. It flows easily, it is highly descriptive, and is beautiful.


While the presence of lesbianism is subtle in The Little Stranger, in this book it is overt. In fact, it becomes a common theme (i.e. frustration in suppressing their real selves and their relationships in public). And while it is overt, it isn't ever preachy or uncomfortable. Waters actually approaches it in a very natural way and is not distracting whatsoever.

One word about the narrator, Juanita McMahon. Phenomenal. She rates up there with the best of the best. She is not only reading her script, she is ACTING. She is adding emotion, a tremulous voice, a flirtatious lilt, hesitations, inflections, attitude, fear, joy, you name it. It was if there was a little movie going on in my head.

My best advice is that if you like Waters, give The Night Watch a try. You may have to tell yourself to stick with it. There were times I felt I was force-feeding myself, which is a fairly easy thing to do with audio. At the end of the day, however, Waters worked her magic on me.



4 out of 5 stars

25 comments:

Melody said...

Great review, Sandy!
I've heard so much great things about this author that I felt I've missed out something because I've yet to read her books! I've a few of her books in my pile but not this one... guess I need to check this out as well.

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read this one yet, but have a copy here. The lesbianism is a very strong theme in the Fingersmith too. I think she writes about relationships between women in an amazing way and I look forward to reading The Night Watch soon.

JoAnn said...

Great review, Sandy! I liked this book too, but not as much as Fingersmith. Still need to get to The LIttle Stranger. Maybe I should try the audio.

caite said...

Believe I have that in my TBR pile....after reading a few very positive reviews.
It is funny how a book can sometimes grow on you, isn't it? You finish it and start thinking about it and mulling it over and you fondness sort of grows...

Heather J. said...

This one is already on my list - glad to hear you liked it after all. I'm currently listening to her book AFFINITY and it is great! Very atmospheric and creepy, and I'm still not exactly sure where she's going with it, but I'm loving it.

Alyce said...

It is really hard to move backwards through time to move the plot forward, and I've only found a few books that have been really successful at it. I haven't heard of this book or author before, so this was a nice introduction.

Matt said...

Sandy, you have nailed it about the book: it's character driven and that the plot doesn't seem all that obvious. I remembered feeling somewhat frustrated not feeling I've had a grab on things. So I took it slowly but the back-tracking to 1941 really helps put things in perspective. She has done an excellent job knitting that fabric of relationships between these characters.

Kathleen said...

I love a character-driven novel and one that makes you need to sit for a few days and think about it when you are done...I'm i! I swear I had this on my book shelves but have just gone looking for it and not located it but I do have Fingersmith so I am calming down now...LOL!

Amy said...

Another great review Sandy. I haven't read anything by Sarah Waters yet but I've listed her in 2challenges I am going to do next year. I really like books that are well written and have good characters. I also like it when the book sticks with you for quite a while after you read it, making you think about it and mull it over. Sounds to me like I am going to like Waters' books based on your great reviews!

bermudaonion said...

This probably wouldn't work for me this time of year - I've got so much going on I'd be too distracted to figure it out. Great review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Don't you love good narrators? I know there is some sort of emmy-equivalent for readers, and I really think that is appropriate, because it can make a huge difference!

Jenners said...

Great review. I'm giving "Fingersmith" a try in 2010 because I've been hearing such raves about it and it sounds like a different type of book and author. And it is interesting when you read a book like this that you aren't sure you love but then it keeps coming back to you after you've left it. I'm sure if I like "Fingersmith" I'll be checking this out too!

Ti said...

I love character driven novels but it would bug me if the plot wasn't fairly obvious at the get-go. Perhaps I'd be more forgiving with an audio book??

Alice Teh said...

You know what, Sandy? I totally regretted not buying this book at the book fair I visited in Singapore in September this year. After reading your review, I felt like giving my head a few big smacks. *SMACK*

S. Krishna said...

I read and loved The Little Stranger and just finished Fingersmith. I want to read this one, but I might try Affinity first. Thanks for the review.

ds said...

Perfect review! I liked this book--thought the structure was wonderful, and the characters really stick. Kay was my favorite.

Esme said...

thank you for feeding the animals-stop by.

Nymeth said...

I found the structure so unique. At first I was definitely lost, but in the end I felt that it made it possible for the book to have a kind of emotional impact it couldn't have otherwise. For example, that scene near the end where Kay is crying by the burning building and Helen returns with Julia - she says "I thought I'd lost you" and it just SHATTERED me, because the reader knows what the future holds, but Kay at that point doesn't. Oh Sarah Waters <3

Gavin said...

I'm adding this to my TBR pile. I have "The Little Stranger" on hold at the library and hope to read it sometime in December.

April said...

I enjoyed listening to The Little Stranger this summer also. That was the first by the author that I have read/listened to.
Great review of The Night Watch! I will have to find a copy!

Beth F said...

Interesting concept and sound like a great audio production. I'll be adding it to my list.

Literary Feline said...

I first heard about this book quite a while ago. It was actually the first Sarah Waters book I bought. I still haven't it though. :-S I love character driven novels and the time period.

I've read a few books that I find I liked much better than I thought I did as I read it or directly after finishing it. Those books are often the ones that I remember the most for years to come.

Thanks for your great review of the audio version of the book, Sandy.

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

Fingersmith is on my must read list for next year!

I think this one might work better in book form for me. I prefer my audios to be a little more plot driven. Thanks for the review!

Anna said...

Great review! I'll add this one to the WWII challenge blog soon.

I've had my eye on this one for awhile. The structure of the story sounds interesting, and you know me, I'll read anything about WWII.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

A link to this review will be posted on the War blog today!