Wednesday 29 May 2024

Night Watch

Finished May 28
Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips

This historical fiction novel jumps around in time a little during the late 1800s. The book has five parts, with the first and third parts taking place in 1874 and the second and fourth parts taking place in 1864. There is also an epilogue that is set in 1883. 
The point of view changes between a few of the characters but is always clearly stated at the beginning of a chapter. The chapter sometimes has a month and year to set it more specifically within the time of that part of the book. The chapter headings are descriptive, telling us of events that take place, or people that are introduced within that chapter. I liked that the chapters were relatively short, and moved you through the book in a natural flow. 
The main character in the book is ConaLee, a thirteen-year-old girl as the book opens in 1874. She is travelling from her home in the high West Virginia mountain area with her mother to an asylum, taken there by the man that has been in their life for the last few years, one who insists that they call him Papa. ConaLee knows that the relationship between her mother and this man is one of control and abuse, but she doesn't understand the hold that he has on her. ConaLee has watched her mother go from an active loving woman who taught her to read and showed her the stars in the sky to one who lies in bed and doesn't speak. ConaLee's mother has had other children from Papa, all without names. The toddler, who ConaLee calls Little Chap has been taken under her own wing and mothered by her. She reads him stories, cuddles him, feeds him, and acts like a mother would. Her mother has recently given birth to twins, a girl and a boy, that ConaLee served as midwife to.  
In a cabin higher on the mountain, above the one that ConaLee and her mother share is one lived in by Dearbhla an older woman that trades in salves and tonics that she makes from the wild plants near her. Dearbhla was midwife to Little Chap, but has been banned from their home for many months now. ConaLee has met her secretly from time to time, to get advice and medicine, but Dearbhla has the vision to know what has been happening with this small family. 
We learn that ConaLee's father, her mother's husband left to fight for the Union in the Civil War, but never returned, and stopped writing home ten years earlier. He has an occasional voice in the earlier time setting, as The Sharpshooter. 
Dearbhla also has a voice in the book, as does a young boy who lives and works at the asylum, known as Weed. We also learn from the 1864 time what ConaLee's mother Eliza went through and why Papa has the control he has. We hear from Dr. Story, the man in charge of the asylum, and from the mysterious O'Shea, the Night Watch of the title, who is calm and watchful man. 
I really enjoyed seeing the story gradually unfold, understanding what connections were between characters, and seeing explanations for events uncovered later in the story. This is a book about love, risk, and the illusion of control. A fascinating read that was hard to put down. One gets a sense of the landscape of the places, both constant and those travelled through. 

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