Tag Archives: Appalachians

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis: Storytelling, Southern Gothic style

Cover imageI 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.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: Seeing the world in shades of grey

Cover imageEven if Ron Rash wasn’t one of my favourite writers I’d have picked this one out of a crowd: its jacket is a thing of beauty, enticing you to pick it up. Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. He’s also a poet, more evident in this new novel than in previous books I’ve read by him. Above the Waterfall is about Les Clary, the local sheriff approaching retirement who finds himself faced with a final case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion.

Les has a few weeks before he hands over his badge to his young colleague. He’s lived all his life in the mountains, most of them as a sheriff. He’s an accomplished watercolourist, written off as sissy by all but one of his schoolmates and bullied for it. C. J. had also been the butt of a good deal of abuse but seemed to shrug it off effortlessly, heading off to college, marrying and building a career for himself. Now he’s back, working for the local resort and intent on providing the future for his sons that his own parents failed to provide for him. When the river is poisoned with kerosene, killing the trout stock provided for the resort’s guests, the finger is pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land. Becky, the park ranger, with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Faced with what seems to be cast iron evidence, Les is inclined to accept Gerald’s guilt but his instinct tells him otherwise. Far from winding down, it seems that Les must solve a case which will tax his moral framework, reminding him of his past before he can take himself off to his mountain cabin.

The most striking element of Rash’s writing for me is his use of language which seems even more evident in this novel than his others. He punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Les, his tentative relationship with Becky is a ‘wary out-of-step dance’; ‘A man entering his coffin’ he thinks as the freshly meth-addicted Darby walks into his darkened house. In contrast Becky holds ‘sunspill like rain’ in the palm of her hand, sees a slug’s body as ‘a slimy slow lugging’ and admires ‘a black snake’s cast-off stocking’ caught in a tree. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. The Appalachians may be idyllically beautiful but they’re far from untouched by the challenges of modern life: Les and his crew regularly raid houses for the meth that’s decimating the population while Becky struggles with memories of the school massacre that tore apart her childhood, seeking healing in nature. Les’ long experience has taught him to see humanity in shades of grey rather than the black and white that his young successor perceives but Rash leaves us to draw our own conclusions, allowing space for redemption to step in. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.