cover image Night Watch

Night Watch

Jayne Anne Phillips. Knopf, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-451-49333-0

Exquisite attention to detail propels this 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 Eliza’s health improves, Phillips oscillates between 1874 and 1864 to piece together 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 feeling 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.)