The Night Watch (Waters novel)
UK first edition cover
|Cover artist||TWBG - Duncan Spilling
Lettering: Stephen Raw
|2 Feb 2006 (UK)|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
The Night Watch is a dark, 2006 historical fiction novel by Sarah Waters. It was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize. The novel, which is told backward through third person narrative, takes place in 1940s London during and after World War II. The storyline follows the fragmented lives and the strange interconnections between Kay, Helen and Julia, three lesbians, Viv, a straight woman and Duncan, her brother, a gay man - their secrets, shames and scandals that connect them despite their different experiences. The war, with its never ending night watches serves as a horrifying context, backdrop and metaphor as a constant reminder of the morbidity that surrounds life and love. The central metaphor of the night watch is about the sleepless nights, detonated by war, but more so, by love.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (November 2008)|
The novel begins with describing the monotonous and seemingly depressing existence of Kay Langrish, a woman in her mid-thirties. Kay is seen to cross dress as a man. She spends her days locked in her room in London, watching her landlord's patients arrive and leave at precisely the same hours every day. She is the watcher of life, passing by. The only human contact that Kay is seen to be having at this stage in the narrative is with another cross dresser, Mickey. Kay is suggested to be wealthy and her residence in Lavender Hill. Mickey and Kay refer to the difficult years of the war that connects them (apart from their queer sexuality). The talk is almost suggestive of a calamity that beset everyone, as war would have been, but, the unspoken calamity, we realize later is not just war.
One night, while waiting for the cinema doors to open, Viv, a woman from her past appears and hands to her a gold ring. The exchange takes no longer than a minute or two.
Helen and her assistant Viv run a match-making agency near Bond Street for individuals who have either lost their loved one or were disappointed to see how much their sweethearts had changed after the war, and are now in search of someone new. The work itself is not very fulfilling, but their friendship keeps them entertained. On their breaks, Viv often begins to tell Helen something revealing about her past, but stops abruptly. For example, Viv casually mentions her brother, but stops before she divulges anything else. Likewise, Helen neglects to tell Viv about Julia, the woman with whom she is romantically involved. Julia is a published author, and is an upper-class woman, which Helen is not. Helen is also jealous of Ursula, another lesbian who reviewed Julia's latest work on the newspaper, because Julia has been spending a lot of time with her.
That night, Helen comes home and finds the house empty. Over the hours that Julia doesn't come home, Helen works herself into a frenzy, until her lover finally arrives cheerful and a bit drunk. Helen picks a fight with Julia, and Julia hashes out her frustration at Helen's incessant jealousy, revealing that she hasn't been able to maintain friendships with any other women because of Helen's jealousy. Julia then asks her rhetorically whether cheating is strictly a concern of those who have cheated in the past. Helen doesn't argue and leaves the room, upset. She goes into the bathroom, cuts her skin with a razor and returns to bed by Julia's side. As the two make up, and Julia drifts into sleep, Helen remembers silk pyjamas she once had in the war.
After work, Viv sets off to meet her brother Duncan, who lives with a much older gentleman named Mr Mundy. The three of them meet on a weekly basis for dinner at Mr Mundy's, and Viv always brings a tin of meat for them to share. Their father never attends, although he is aware of their dinners. Duncan shrugs off news of their father, and proceeds to show Viv the latest addition to his antiques collection. He is amused by the history behind the antiques and likes to brag about how he managed to bring the cost down from its original price. Viv politely ends the night and heads for the railway station, but she doesn't go home to her father's. She instead hops inside a car and kisses Reggie.
The two are seen together in a car, on a clear day, driving somewhere secluded and out of the city. They have a picnic where they can’t be seen. On the way back, while navigating through atrocious city traffic, Viv spots Kay waiting in the cinema queue and panics. She quickly ducks, makes Reggie manoeuvre like a madman, and finally stops at a quiet street. Viv explains that she saw someone she knew and gets out of the car. Reggie hands her two tins of meat and, irritated, she heaves them back at him and tells him to take them to his wife and children.
On the same day that Helen wanted to confide her love for Julia to Viv, the two women receive an unexpected visit from Robert Fraser, Duncan’s old cellmate. He asks to speak with her regarding Duncan, and his present condition: collecting antiques (which Robert finds morbid), living with Mr Mundy, whom both men knew at the prison, and working at a candle factory. It is clear he thinks Duncan ought to be doing more with his life, and wants Viv’s help in getting Duncan out of his shell. Viv dismisses Fraser, feeling as though he thinks she and her father haven’t done enough to help Duncan’s situation and explains that he simply doesn’t know everything. Fraser tags along with Viv, who after first spotting Kay outside the cinema has been coming back to the cinema for a whole week, hoping to see Kay again. The two wait at a café, and when Viv spots Kay, it is Fraser who convinces her to run to Kay. It doesn’t take Viv long to hand Kay a gold band and return to the café. She suddenly feels free, and starts to think of breaking off her affair with Reggie, leaving her job, and living somewhere else by herself.
Duncan accompanies Mr Mundy, or "Uncle Horace," as he referred to him in public, every Tuesday to his Christian Science doctor at Lavender Hill. Upon not seeing Kay standing at the window watching the streets, they comment that "Colonel Barker" isn't there, and proceed inside. Mr Leonard, Kay's landlord, begins the session by soothingly telling Mr Mundy that his arthritis doesn't exist. After having dinner with his sister, Duncan works at the candle factory. It is implied that the boss adores him, and he shies away when a younger co-worker brags about his latest indiscretion and invites Duncan to join him. His boss brings to him a reporter who was doing a story on factories and is surprised to see it's Robert Fraser, his old cellmate, though neither of them explain to the others how they know one another. Before proceeding on his tour of the factory, Fraser hands Duncan his address and asks that he come visit him sometime, which Duncan trashes some time later.
When he leaves work, Duncan is surprised to see Fraser waiting for him at the gates. He invites Duncan to a pub by the water, and Duncan reluctantly agrees, mainly because he doesn't want Mr Mundy to worry. The two share two pints of beer, and while Fraser goes off to the bathroom, Duncan suddenly sees two familiar faces looking at him scornfully. Knowing what they’re thinking, he begins to panic, and when Fraser returns, he sees Duncan's state and explains to Duncan that nobody’s looking at him. It is implied that the figures he imagined were related to Alec, a boy he knew before going to prison.
Fraser makes several calls at Duncan's for dinner. One night, however, he doesn't show up, and Duncan is quite upset, while Mr Mundy is relieved. Duncan decides to sneak out that night to go to Fraser's, regardless of Mr Mundy’s disapproval. He arrives at Fraser's window, and the two chat. He learns that Fraser didn't come to see him because he'd got caught up with his "date" with Viv.
Duncan has been imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for three years now, and Viv and her father visit him once a month. Duncan's time is juxtaposed between prison guard Mr Mundy's kind and defeatist demeanour and Fraser's free-thinking, free-acting attitude. Although it is unclear why Duncan's there, his father comments that it should be "that other boy" in there, not Duncan. He is referring to Alec, whom the other prisoners have termed Duncan's "boyfriend." When Fraser asks Duncan about his "boyfriend," Duncan snaps and tells him that Alec was nothing more than his only friend, someone who appreciated the arts just as much as he did. Duncan constantly shrugs off implicit suggestions that he might be gay, even though one night, when Fraser is masturbating, Duncan joins in silently. Despite this, whatever suspicions Fraser has about Duncan's sexuality don't bother him, as the two seem to have a special connection. Towards the end of the chapter, there are indications that Duncan was imprisoned following an attempted suicide.
Viv is working as a typist, along with many other girls, and lodges at a boarding house with some of her co-workers. She meets Reggie, who is married, at anonymous hotels once every five weeks, whenever Reggie is permitted leave from Wales. One day she finds her period is one month late, and realises she is pregnant with Reggie's baby. After she telephones him, she has to wait two weeks for him to take off leave, and when he does he brings her to the office of a dentist who performs clandestine abortions on the side. As a result, Viv suffers a massive haemorrhage and Reggie calls the ambulance. Kay arrives with Mickey.
Before they put Viv in the ambulance, Reggie apologises, and later on, the women realise that he's fled. On the way to the hospital, Viv explains to the women her situation and begs them to remain silent. Upon arrival, Viv becomes afraid that the doctors will learn about the abortion and scorn her for being an unmarried woman. Kay slips her pinkie ring, which she never took off, on to Viv's finger and leaves. She tells the nurses that Viv suffered a miscarriage during one of the air raids and her womb might have been punctured as a result. This is the last time Viv will see Kay for four years.
Kay works as an emergency response ambulance worker along with Mickey. She spends long nights cleaning up after air raids, sometimes collecting corpses, at other times rushing victims to the nearest hospital. She lives with her lover, Helen, who she sees as someone she must protect and shelter from the horrors of war.
For Helen's birthday, she spends a fortune, about thirteen pounds, buying her silk pyjamas, coffee and an orange. Mickey is stupefied at how much Kay's spent, but Kay responds that someone must spend the Langrish fortune.
One night a call comes in to an air raid that has occurred on her street. She assumes Helen's been asleep throughout the entire raid and panics. She runs to the rubble to where her flat used to be and weeps at her loss. One of her co-workers then points out Helen walking with Julia, and she runs to Helen ecstatic and crying. She exclaims, "Oh, Julia! Thank God! I thought I'd lost her."
Helen works for the government in a division that assists those who've lost their belongings in the war. By chance she runs into Julia, a woman who was once acquainted with Kay. Julia invites her to tea, and Helen begins to fall in love with her. They discuss how loving, protective, and yet tiresome Kay can be. Julia mentions that Kay wants a wife, and Julia simply couldn't be that wife for Kay.
One night Helen is unable to sleep and leaves for Julia's flat. They take a walk around the ruins, and when another air raid alarm is sounded, they run amongst more ruins and hide from the chaos. It is there they kiss and make love for the first time.
Their affair continues for some weeks, thanks to Kay's late hours. They are in Julia's flat, and it is then that Helen decides she must tell Kay and break things off with her. She finds she is entirely in love with Julia, and while she cares for Kay, she doesn't love her in the same manner she once used to. It is also then that Julia straightens out her past for Helen: it was Julia, not Kay, who was in love with the other, while the latter didn't feel the same. Julia attributed Helen's misconception to Kay's gallantry, and Helen suddenly feels used, but still finds she can't help her love for Julia. They reconcile and, while they are making love, an air raid hits close to her flat. They dress and make their way to her place, and find Kay sitting on the rubble, weeping.
Viv is on a crowded train, filled with civilians and military men. By chance, she meets a soldier named Reggie. They engage in a conversation under awkward circumstances, and he reveals to her that he is stuck in an unhappy marriage, and has had a very limited time to go home and meet his newborn daughter before leaving for overseas. In her earnestness and honesty she falls in love with him.
Duncan is asleep in Viv's room when Alec taps on his window. Alec is frantic and panicked, as he has just received his call-up that day. He's argued with his parents earlier over this: he refuses to fight in a war he does't believe in and his "brute" father struck him on the face. Convinced his father will never understand his beliefs, or his appreciation for the arts, he resolves to make a statement by killing himself. He easily convinces Duncan to do the same, since Duncan can't imagine a life without him.
Alec writes a suicide note, and decides to slash his throat. He goes before Duncan, who all the while is wishing his father will come into the kitchen and interrupt the entire thing. Alec bids farewell and cuts himself. It is implied that Duncan follows suit, but his father interrupts before much damage is done.
Kay is responding to an emergency call along with Mickey. They arrive at the scene and find one woman dead, another young woman caught underneath rubble, and two others trapped behind more debris. Kay helps the young woman, and after a brief exchange, she soon finds herself displaying much care towards her victim. They share a cigarette and Kay finds she's smitten with her. She asks for her name and she tells her it's Helen.
- Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
- Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
- Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, 2007
On 25 November 2010, BBC2 network announced the cast for the 90-minute television adaptation of The Night Watch. It was adapted by Paula Milne and directed by Richard Laxton and was broadcast on 12 July 2011 on BBC Two.
- Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay
- Claire Foy as Helen
- Jodie Whittaker as Viv
- Harry Treadaway as Duncan
- Anna Wilson-Jones as Julia
- J. J. Feild as Robert
- Liam Garrigan as Reggie
- Claudie Blakley as Nancy
- Kenneth Cranham as Mr Mundy
- Book description at Sarah Waters' official webpage
- Smoother than velvet: Book review at The Guardian
- This Is London: Book review at the New York Times