The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis: Storytelling, Southern Gothic style

Cover image 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.

12 thoughts on “The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis: Storytelling, Southern Gothic style”

  1. Isn’t it wonderful how one book leads to another, and one writer leads to another and how reading can be like following a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you into a deep forest from which you cannot and do not want to escape. It is a forest I’m glad to explore, and from your review here it sounds like you are too. Perhaps not a perfect book, but it sounds like it was an enjoyable read. Lovely review.

  2. I have heard quite a lot of buzz about this book, but also very mixed feelings, especially about the ending. (A fellow reviewer on Facebook said it took her two weeks to figure out how she’d deal with the ending in her newspaper review.) However, your comparisons to Irving and Rash are tempting. And Threnody — what a name!

    1. And not one she’s entirely happy with! That’s interesting, Rebecca. I steer well clear of endings when reviewing: too much risk in ruining things for fellow readers. It’s far from a perfect novel but Lewis’ knows how to keep his readers’ attention.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Hype tends to have the opposite effect that it’s meant to have on me. Brings out my inner cynic!

  3. This is the second fairly glowing review I’ve read from bloggers I respect, but I was put off by the negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I think I might give it a go now.

    1. That’s interesting, April. I wonder what it is they didn’t like. It’s not without its faults but it is an engrossing book. I certainly enjoyed it enough to read whatever he comes up with next.

        1. I think you’re right – I can’t argue with the bleak point although I think that’s pretty clear from the start.

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