Sarah Waters, in her stunningly atmospheric novel The Night Watch, narrates the lives of a group of women – and some men – as they are affected by the terrors of the London Blitz and the World War II's aftermath. We first meet Waters' eclectic group of characters in 1947, and you can be sure that all are exhausted.
Kay finds herself vulnerable and wandering. Now that the war is over she doesn't really have a lot to do; there is no one to visit, no one to see. She describes her day as "blank like all her days." An ambulance driver who once worked the gruesome night shift at Dolphin Square, Kay visits her best friend, Mickey, on her houseboat and ends up reminiscing about the "good old days."
Vivian and Helen run an introduction agency in central London, primarily catering to lonely singles who have lost partners and loved ones. Viv's hesitance to talk about herself doesn't preclude the fact that she has spent the last several years involved with the dashing serviceman Reggie, a married man whom she met in 1941 and still has the same mix of love and exasperation for.
Helen is now involved with Julia, an ex-girlfriend of Kate's. They met in 1944 and instantly fell in love. But with the War over, Helen is set adrift. Plagued by loneliness and insecurity, she's worried that her feelings for Julia aren't being reciprocated.
There's also Duncan, Vivian's disappointed and paranoid kid brother. Labeled a "sensitive boy," at night he lives in seclusion with a mystifying elderly man while by day works on an assembly line in a candle-making factory. Duncan has spent much of the war in prison, his time there connected to the loss of his young friend Alec, who died under mysterious circumstances that bought shame on his family.
Moving backward in time, Waters ingeniously employs a type of retro-narrative, progressively revealing her story in increments from 1947 to 1944, then on to 1941 and the early days of her characters' lives, highlighting the harrowing struggles that all these people have ultimately had to face.
Waters' lesbians are remarkably well-adjusted considering the time in which they lived. In post-World War II England, brazen homophobia and bigotry was rampant – in one instance, Mickey is told to "go out and buy some lipstick," and Kay, Helen and Julia often just wish the world around them was different, that they didn't have to sneak and slink "so grubbily about."
These people are imbued with a certain sorrow and a sort of grayness, "a layer of grief, as fine as ash, just beneath the surface." And although they are exhausted, they are also often grateful. Wartime is a time of kindness amidst stunning atrocity; it can really bring forth the courage of people and their impossible goodness, and we see this in The Night Watch.
Faced with some difficult choices, the burden of so many secrets, and of putting up with so much caution and darkness - liking things you aren't supposed to like, feeling things you aren't supposed to feel – Waters' characters have ultimately proved their mettle and resiliency and have undoubtably learned how to survive in a harsh, confused and once-apocalyptic world.