The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I came to this book with no preconceptions, apart from glancing at the comments from critics chosen by the publishers for the cover, as it was a present. Overall, I found it slow and a bit superficial.

It is set in World War II London – the Blitz, sweet tea, civilians doing heroic jobs, all that. Nearly all of the characters are gay, in various states of denial about their sexuality. That is probably the main theme of the book, in fact. It is written back to front, in chronological terms. So we start in 1947 and move episodically back to 1941.

The narrative was too slow, in my view. Scenes took a long time to play out and there was much description that felt self indulgent and added little to the atmosphere or our understanding.

The characterisation felt superficial. I wondered, as someone who is not gay, whether I lacked sensitivity in failing to appreciate something but thought of brilliant, brilliant writers like Alan Hollinghurst who also write about gay characters and whose books I have loved. I concluded that the writing is just not that good.

If you had nothing else to read and were on a long train journey, this is a decent enough novel. Truth to tell, I felt with sufficient time and effort I could write it. The artifice is too visible. But we want, don’t we, something more from our books? To be captivated by something that carries us away, to feel guided by something better, cleverer or more insightful than ourselves? I am afraid this book never quite achieved that, for me. But it was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange prizes so perhaps I missed something.


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