I like to think that I’m reasonably resistant to marketing hype, quite capable of making up my own mind thank you very much, but truth be told I do find author puffs seductive, particularly when they’re from writers I admire. I would have been attracted to the premise of Phillip Lewis’ debut regardless of the ringing endorsement from Ron Rash but I have to admit it did nudge me along a little. The Barrowfields is set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, Rash’s own literary stomping ground, and tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy with more than a touch of Southern Gothic.
The youngest son of Maddy and Helton Aster, Henry is very different from his down to earth parents who are much more at home in the hardscrabble town of Old Buckram than he is. To their and the town’s mystification, Henry spends his time reading whatever he can get his hands on. He’s the first one of the family to go to college and is determined to become a writer. Henry falls in love with Eleonore at the library, convinced that this vision of loveliness heading towards the rare book room is as besotted with books as he is. They marry and Henry becomes a lawyer – writing far into the night – while Eleonore teaches. When Maddy’s health begins to decline, Helton writes to his son. Henry knows what he must do: he and Eleonore find themselves a place to live in Old Buckram, settling into the gothic ‘vulture house’ where Henry sets up a library for himself, tracking down first editions mouldering in second-hand bookshops, and continues to spends his nights writing and drinking. They have a son, named for his father, then – nine years later – a daughter who her father names Threnody. When Maddy dies, Henry sinks into a deep depression. A few years later, tragedy strikes pulling him down deeper and leaving his family to fend for themselves. The younger Henry departs for college, rarely coming home to fulfill his promise to look after Threnody, unable to face the pain of Old Buckram’s memories. He has his own tale to tell, falling for a young woman whose story is as tragic as his own.
Lewis’ prologue sets us up nicely for a bit of Southern Gothic with its abandoned desk and empty bottle of absinth overlooked by a fair imitation of Poe’s raven. Narrated by the younger Henry, this is the story of his father and the long shadow he casts over the family, beginning in the crumbling mansion which has its own macabre history. The Rash endorsement raised my expectations for some of my favourite stripped down prose which didn’t materialise but Lewis knows how to turn a phrase: ‘It was horribly tart. It drew my eyes in together so much I thought they would touch’ graphically describes the young Henry’s reaction to his grandmother’s cider; his father writes ‘because it’s one of the only things that seems real to me… … it’s the only way short of death to make time stop’. Lewis’ narrative bowls along nicely, replete with eccentric characters of the kind John Berendt delivered in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with stories to match. He knows how to spin a tale – his storytelling skills put me in mind of John Irving’s at times – but the novel is not without its flaws: I wondered what had happened to Henry’s four siblings, never mentioned beyond the fact of their existence, and there were a few too many Southern Gothic touches for me. That said it’s an engrossing read which drew me in, keeping my attention throughout its well over 300 pages, and it ends with a sentence we could all learn something from.