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Review of "Night Watch" by Jayne Anne Phillips - depicting the devastating effects of the American Civil War.

Review of “Night Watch” by Jayne Anne Phillips – depicting the devastating effects of the American Civil War.


In a striking moment in Night Watch, taking place during the American Civil War, a young girl is lowered upside down into a grave by her mother to retrieve a rifle from a dead body. However, this intense feat ultimately serves no purpose as the weapon does not provide enough protection for their perilous situation. This serves as a representation of the book’s unrelenting perspective.

Jayne Anne Phillips has written her sixth novel, which is her third work to address the impact of war on both soldiers and civilians. Having previously explored this topic in her novels Machine Dreams and Lark and Termite, Phillips is uniquely equipped to delve into the civil war. This four-year conflict resulted in over 700,000 deaths and left many others with shattered lives. Its repercussions of violence and division continue to reverberate even today.

The book, titled Night Watch, showcases a variety of characters such as John O’Shea, a deformed night-watchman, a healer named Dearbhla, and an orphan boy named Weed. However, the main focus of the novel is on ConaLee, a young girl who was buried in a grave, and her mother Eliza, who buried her. The story takes place in West Virginia and Virginia during the war, and 10 years later at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Night Watch portrays the horrors faced by ConaLee and Eliza after ConaLee’s father enlists in the war, as the United States is in the midst of tearing itself apart.

Their trials come at the hands of a sadistic veteran who makes his entry into their lives by perpetrating a terrifyingly detailed assault on Eliza. Insisting grotesquely on being called “Papa”, he returns again and again to tyrannise them. In scenes that both mirror and warp the wartime travails of ConaLee’s actual father, which Phillips describes economically in alternating chapters, mother and daughter are brought low indeed.

After Papa grows tired of them, he devises a complex plan reminiscent of Wilkie Collins to get rid of them and hide his actions. He decides to have them institutionalized, with teenage ConaLee taking on the identity of a servant named “Nurse Connolly” and Eliza, who is mostly silent due to years of sexual abuse, pretending to be her employer, a troubled lady known as “Miss Janet”. They are easily admitted into a mental institution without much questioning.

Phillips effectively portrays a devastated world where many individuals have lost their sense of self, both physically and mentally. This accurately reflects the destabilizing nature of the subject matter. One character shares, in a simple manner, “My husband returned from battle but struggled to be himself.” The characters in the novel, whether by choice or circumstance, have changed their names or become disconnected from their true selves. The asylum, with its beautiful surroundings and progressive practices, provides a safe haven for them. As “Nurse Connolly” and “Miss Janet” adjust to a life filled with regular meals, enjoyable walks, and pleasant company, other stories begin to unfold and intertwine with theirs.

One story belongs to O’Shea, the guardian of the asylum, who came out of the war with an injury-induced amnesia that cuts him off from any knowledge of his past, except that he feels disturbingly comfortable with a rifle in his hands. We relive the brutal battle in which he was wounded through Phillips’s crisp narration: “The line yelled together, plunging down the slope in a bombardment of shell and bullets so heavy and deafening it was as though they’d entered a field on fire.”

O’Shea’s current condition both deepens the mystery that informs the novel and serves as the central node of a matrix of coincidence that in less skilful hands might have detracted rather than enhanced. Phillips pulls it off by leaning into the device rather than away from it: the attentive reader will perceive clues and spot coincidences throughout Night Watch. The result is that when, say, one character’s relationship to another becomes fully clear, it feels like a satisfying confirmation born out of a context of deep connection, rather than a cheap reveal.

The novel Night Watch can be difficult to read, and at times, even painful. However, it is not entirely bleak, as there are moments of grace scattered throughout, particularly towards the end. While ConaLee somberly notes “I’d only seen the war in its destruction,” she and others at the asylum are also given a glimpse of what could potentially be restored with time and attention. In 2010, the late author Tony Horwitz, known for Confederates in the Attic, stated that much of the Civil War remains shrouded in myth or unexplored. With this remarkable novel, Phillips sheds more light on this significant moment in American history.

Source: theguardian.com