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.