Reviews for Night Watch

by Jayne Anne Phillips

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Set in West Virginia during and after the Civil War, Phillips’ book takes as given that slavery was evil and the war a necessity, focusing instead on lives torn apart by the conflict and on the period’s surprisingly enlightened approach toward care of the mentally ill. The novel’s pitch-perfect voice belongs to ConaLee, observant and loving but also a scrappy survivor. Initially, ConaLee knows only that she was born in 1861 after her father “went away” and that her mother loves books. When a frightening man shows up years later calling himself “Papa,” ConaLee assumes he’s her father. He is not, but he stays and tyrannizes ConaLee’s mother until she suffers mental and physical collapse. Then he dumps now 12-year-old ConaLee and her mother at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and disappears. Here readers’ assumptions about 19th-century psychiatric care are tested. The asylum’s founder follows the real-life Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride’s theory of “moral treatment,” which included empathetic compassion on the part of the staff along with activity and fresh air for the patients. His humane approach was accepted, even prevalent in its day. Here, the asylum becomes the catalyst for characters to uncover identities lost, hidden, or unknown. ConaLee’s lineage, revealed piecemeal, exemplifies a complex world in which names change, sometimes more than once. Her mother grew up the daughter of a plantation owner. He disapproved of the boy she loved because he was supposedly “shack Irish,” the nephew of the girl’s Irish nursemaid. The nursemaid kept secret that he was not her relation but a slave’s half-Black orphan. Fleeing to Appalachia in 1861, the young lovers married under an assumed name before ConaLee’s father joined the Union Army. After surviving a head wound in battle, he lost all memory of his past and started a new life with a new name…guess where. Yes, expect coincidences and convolutions, but Phillips pulls them off with gorgeous prose, attention to detail, and masterful characters. Haunting storytelling and a refreshing look at history. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Exquisite attention to detail propels a superb meditation on broken families in post–Civil War West Virginia from Phillips (Lark and Termite). In 1874, 12-year-old ConaLee and her mute mother, Eliza, are delivered to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston by an abusive man known to ConaLee as Papa, who has sold off the pair’s possessions. Papa assures ConaLee that the asylum will cure Eliza; before he departs, he also reveals he is not ConaLee’s father. Mother and daughter are welcomed by night watchman O’Shea, a Union Army veteran who lost his eye in battle. As her health improves, Phillips oscillates between 1874 and 1864 to fill in narrative puzzles, explaining Eliza’s quiet nature, the origins of Papa in their lives, the identity and fate of ConaLee’s real father, and O’Shea’s injury. A profound sense of loss haunts the novel, and Phillips conveys a strong sense of place (describing the asylum, she writes, “There was noise and commotion, all of a piece, like off-pitch music”). The bruised and turbulent postbellum era comes alive in Phillips’s page-turning affair. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (Sept.)

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Phillips (Quiet Dell, 2013) excels in crafting original takes on human circumstances, like mother-daughter relationships and women’s vulnerabilities and resilience. Her setting here is equally striking: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in rural West Virginia. In 1874, 12-year-old ConaLee and her mother, Eliza, whom trauma has rendered mute, are dropped off there by a man ConaLee calls Papa, although he isn’t her father. They are brought inside by the night watchman, one of many characters with a hidden past. Contrary to reader expectations, the facility (an actual place) provides humane treatment for mental illness. Posing as her mother’s maid, ConaLee sees her make improvements under the compassionate doctor’s care. The story unflinchingly reveals the tragedy that befell them after Eliza’s husband never returned from the Civil War, and how a wandering con man invaded their isolated mountain sanctuary. We also learn about Eliza’s and her husband’s origins. From vivid battle scenes to the asylum’s social refinements, the historical milieu comes alive in all its facets as Phillips evokes the enduring bonds of both blood and chosen families.