Mother, child search for shelter after Civil War in ‘Night Watch’

"Night Watch," by Jayne Anne Phillips. (Knopf/TNS)

Jayne Anne Phillips is very good at writing awful things. Which might be why what's most powerful in her "Night Watch" is a rape.

As in most Civil War novels of late, the war in "Night Watch" sets the scene and triggers the plot -- in this case, the separation of a young man from his "swole huge with child" wife, Eliza, the separation resulting from a grievous head wound inflicted at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.

Already, before he goes off for a soldier (as they say), the young man and Eliza are on the run from -- well, a lot of spoilers. They're eking out a rough existence in a cabin on a remote ridge in what's soon to become West Virginia. Living in an even more remote cabin on the ridge above is Dearbhla, an Irish "granny" who is learned in "woods medicinals" and possessed of a strange talent for summoning the whereabouts and status of loved ones.

Dearbhla is not really a granny to either Eliza or the young man, but they are her loved ones, with bonds stretching back to a plantation in Virginia. There, already revered and feared for her witchy gifts, she raised the sickly Mistress' child, Eliza, as well as the master's baby boy when the "poor yellow gal that birthed him died of it." "He look white," says the enslaved woman who delivers him to Dearbhla's door. "You got to take him."

Babies are a kind of currency in the story, exchanged and redistributed as circumstances dictate. Eliza, for instance, will have -- along with the fruit of that belly, ConaLee -- a few more "babbies" under horrific conditions, all handed out to neighbors after their seemingly catatonic mother manages to get herself transported, with ConaLee, to a lunatic asylum in Alexandria.

Yes, in this story, a lunatic asylum (based on a historical institution with real mental health pioneers) actually offers asylum. For a while. It also offers the opportunity for a rather generous suspension of disbelief, as everyone in the story -- most in one sort of fog or another -- somehow gathers there in time to precipitate an outrageous crisis. Even the rape, perhaps, pales.

Another thing Phillips is very good at is capturing a sort of inner dialect, conveyed here in a language inflected with a Southern twang, modulated to reflect characters' social status and degree of education. Only ConaLee gets to speak for herself, narrating events a decade after the war, as the story slips back and forth in time. But it is when Phillips channels the thoughts of the others that the telling, like the story itself, becomes as compelling, even beautiful, as it is difficult to experience.

Here's Dearbhla, when she sets off on horse-drawn buckboard to find her "one." "The moistened dirt of the road unspooled, letting rise a fragrance of bower for some little time. Dearbhla let it draw her forward. The long past full of whispers, souls, cries and distance traveled with her. The present was hazy with smells and sounds, for the past was present."

Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer and writing teacher.