The Night Watch (Waters novel)

The Night Watch is a dark, 2006 historical fiction novel by Sarah Waters. It was shortlisted for both the 2006 Man Booker Prize and 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, whose sexuality is ambiguous. 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 Night Watch
UK first edition cover
AuthorSarah Waters
Cover artistTWBG - Duncan Spilling
Lettering: Stephen Raw
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreHistorical fiction
Publication date
2 Feb 2006 (UK)
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages480 pp

Plot summary



The novel begins with Kay Langrish-a woman broken by the war. 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. The only human contact that Kay is seen to be having at this stage in the narrative is with another lesbian, Mickey. Kay is suggested to be wealthy by her residence in Lavender Hill. One night, while waiting for the cinema doors to open, Viv, a woman from her past appears and hands to her a gold ring.


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. The work itself is not very fulfilling, but their hesitant friendship keeps them entertained.


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. Duncan shrugs off news of their father, and proceeds to show Viv the latest addition to his antiques collection. Viv politely ends the night and heads for the railway station, but she doesn't go home to her father's.

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. 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.


Duncan accompanies Mr Mundy, or "Uncle Horace," as he referred to him in public, every Tuesday to his Christian Science doctor at Lavender Hill. 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. 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.

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 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.


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.


Kay works as an emergency response ambulance worker along with Mickey. She spends long nights cleaning up after air raids.

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.


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. 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.


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.

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.


  • Man Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
  • Orange Prize for Fiction (shortlist), 2006
  • Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, 2007

TV-movie adaptation

On 25 November 2010, BBC2 network announced the cast for the 90-minute television adaptation of The Night Watch.[1] It was adapted by Paula Milne and directed by Richard Laxton and was broadcast on 12 July 2011 on BBC Two.



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