The Watchers by Jon Steele – ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on’

The post tonight is in two halves – the first, here, is my review of The Watchers by Jon Steele, the second is an interview with the author himself, who very kindly responded to my plea to learn more about the background to the most extraordinary novel I’ve read this year, and one of the most memorable that I’ve read in much longer than that.

Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, The Watchers follows a few days in the lives of three seemingly disconnected people: Jay Harper, a private detective with a thing for the History Channel, who wakes up without memories; Katherine Taylor, an expensive courtesan who discovers that her life is worth far less than she’d thought; Marc Rochat, the young man with a limp who guards the nine bells of Lausanne Cathedral, marshalling their efforts with his lantern, encouraging and admonishing, but always vigilant. And not only the bells, because Marc sees ghosts from his past and present. For all three characters, nothing is what it seems in life. Figures outside their lives seek to manipulate their fate. Finally, it comes down to a battle between good and evil, with much more at risk than the lives of those seeking refuge within the cathedral.

The pace of The Watchers is deceptively subtle. The story is character-driven but that does not mean that it is slow. On the contrary. Harper, Katherine and Marc each have their own demons. Once the three characters come together there is no let-up in the energy of the story, which builds and builds and you will not be able to put the book down. A book of 550 pages or so disappeared into two nights of reading. This isn’t just because of the story, which combines reality and fantasy in a seamless and magical fashion, but also because of the writing. The Watchers breathes beautiful prose, reaching poetic heights in places, sometimes literally.

‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on’ – a line by poet Edward Thomas, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, who died at Arras on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 at 7.30am. This line resonates through The Watchers. It begins the novel in a prologue that wrung my heart til the tears fell from my eyes. How common is it to begin a novel, read a prologue, and feel like that? It’s so rare. But when you read these opening pages about a young man facing the end in the trenches of the Great War, you know that you are reading something very special indeed. You’ll commit to it and you won’t be disappointed. The rest of the story, and the characters, lives up to this unbelievably strong and emotional opening.

There is a fantasy element to The Watchers but, and I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t tend to read fantasy novels, it emerges so gently that it doesn’t disturb the reader’s acceptance of this world. This is a masterly exercise in atmosphere.

I did not want this book to end. My only comfort when The Watchers finished was knowing that this was the first in a trilogy. Jon Steele has assured me that he already knows the final sentence of the third novel. I will try and be patient…

The Watchers is the debut novel by Jon Steele, an award winning cameraman and editor for ITN for over twenty years, a journalist who’d experienced war and conflict across the globe but quit on the day that war broke out with Iraq for reasons of conscience. The Watchers is not, however, Steele’s first book. War Junkie (2002), described on the cover as ‘One man’s addiction to the worst places on earth’, presents an impression of the horror of human behaviour and the unexpected brevity of human life, and this impression is carried through to The Watchers. It might be a first work of fiction, but it comes with a history of feeling.

The Watchers by Jon Steele.

‘Rain’ by Philip Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

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