Monday, September 18, 2023

Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips offers a unique take on recovery from the U.S. Civil War

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.

Night Watch is published by Knopf on September 19th; I wrote this review for Booklist's July 2023 issue. The novel was recently longlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction.  I first read Jayne Anne Phillips's work as a judge for the first Massachusetts Book Award in 2001; her novel Motherkind (not historical fiction) was the winner that year.

Want to read more about the history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum?  If you visit in person, you can attend a historic/heritage tour or a ghost tour of the site.

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