Jayne Anne Phillips transitioned from highly praised short stories to novels in 1984, and several years have stretched between each new work. But that’s only part of what makes Night Watch such a meaningful literary event. Tracing an arc from catastrophic damage and loss to recovery through the Civil War and its aftermath, Phillips marries a timeless emotional quality and utterly contemporary sensibility to create a satisfying work in her first novel in a decade.
Much of the story is told in the observant but occasionally naive voice of ConaLee, a 12-year-old girl born in the first year of the war in the mountainous territory of West Virginia. She’s the offspring of a couple who migrated north from a plantation in South Carolina’s Low Country in the company of a compassionate “woods doctor” named Dearbhla, whom the girl thinks of as her “granny neighbor.” When the novel opens in 1874, ConaLee and her mother are being deposited at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (a real institution) by a former Confederate soldier ConaLee has come to know as “Papa,” even though he has been physically and psychologically abusing her mother.
More than a decade earlier, ConaLee’s real father had also shed his identity to enlist in the Union Army as a sharpshooter. After he was grievously wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, he spent months at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, recovering from his injuries. He eventually healed physically, though with all memory of his former life erased. The novel devotes most of its attention to ConaLee’s mother’s return to sanity through the innovative methods implemented at the hospital by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, while the fate of her husband remains a lingering mystery.
How Phillips knits these two main threads together won’t be revealed here, because the novel features a healthy number of complications that bring the story to its resolution and will delight fans of plot-driven fiction. Phillips is also a sensuous writer, and the novel features numerous examples of captivating depictions of unspoiled nature. One of the most vivid scenes is a description of the sharpshooter’s last experience of combat that captures both the terror and exhilaration of war. Night Watch is escapist in the best sense of the word, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the experience of a distant era and identify deeply with the struggles of the people who lived through it.