“Night Watch” by Jayne Anne Phillips wins Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, stands at the center of Jayne Anne Phillips’ latest novel, Night Watch (Knopf 2023). It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is long-listed for the National Book Award in Fiction, and is a New Yorker Best Book of the Year. The Civil War’s aftermath of wounded men and broken families looms large throughout this tale.

The book can be somewhat difficult in the beginning, because there are no quotation marks around dialogue. Then there is “Papa,” who is not a Papa or related in any way to Mama or twelve-year-old ConaLee. Many pages will pass before readers will learn who he actually is. Once readers get past those difficulties, the novel shines with rich historic details of the post-Civil War period in central West Virginia.

The story opens in 1874 as Papa and ConaLee drive Mama in a buckboard to the hospital because she hasn’t spoken for a year or done chores. ConaLee has been the adult in the family, caring for three “babbies,” who have been given away to neighbors. Now she is to stay with her mother, pretending to be a servant, rather than a daughter, to take care of her. The asylum houses quality ladies in their own private rooms. They are well fed and provided with progressive “moral” treatment based on exercise and fresh air and hobbies.

ConaLee’s point of view dominates the story, but other characters also have sections devoted to their voices, including an orphan child named Weed; the Night Watch, Mr. O’Shea, who admits ConaLee and her mother into the asylum; and Dearbhla, an Irish neighbor who has tried to help ConaLee and her mother. These viewpoints enrich the story. The story often drifts backs and forth in time.

Phillips’ words paint lively visuals for the characters. Night Watch—Mr. O’Shea—is “dressed almost like a train conductor, all in black, and his cap was round, with a round bill. He wore a patch that covered his right eye from brow to cheekbone, with a livid scar beneath.” The matron, Mrs. Bowman, is described a “well fleshed and broad, like a square that could not be moved.” Weed is an “odd-looking child,” “an undersized boy, he seemed, with one blue and one milky eye, veiled nearly white across the pupil.” The entire novel is also full of rich details that transport the reader to a particular time and place.

Quotations from Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the real-life doctor who developed and promoted humane treatment for mental patients, open each chapter. The Weston facility he designed with long wings and lots of sunlight was designed to make the pleasant building part of the cure. His treatment method spread to over three hundred other hospitals.

The outstanding doctor who runs the facility when ConaLee and her mother arrive is Dr. Thomas Kirkbride Story, who was named “the inverse of [his] successful uncle’s name.” The compassionate Dr. Story even adds a touch of romance to the tale.

Gradually readers learn ConaLee’s story: that her father left to fight in the Civil War and never returned; that the violent man who insisted on being called Papa forced himself upon the family, raping the mother repeatedly until she collapses mentally. While ConaLee and her mother hope never to see Papa again after he abandons them at the asylum, readers will be expecting the evil man to appear again and bring havoc to their lives. Which, of course, he does, in a powerful and chilling confrontation.

Night Watch combines all the elements of grand historical fiction. It takes place in a pivotal time period in American history. It centers on a worthy subject, a mental hospital and doctors determined to deliver moral treatment of patients, rather than the chains and dungeon-like conditions of the past. And finally, good versus evil clash in an emotionally fraught climax. This outstanding novel is another winner from Jayne Anne Phillips.

Jayne Anne Phillips

Born in West Virginia, Phillips is the author of Black Tickets, Machine Dreams, Fast Lanes, Shelter, MotherKind, Lark and Termite, and Quiet Dell. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Bunting Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships. Winner of an Arts and Letters Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she was inducted into the Academy in 2018. A National Book Award finalist, and twice a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, she lives in New York and Boston.

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