Tag Archives: Contemprary American fiction

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.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: The ties that bind stretched too far

Cover imageMuch lauded by the likes of Peter Carey and Colum McCann, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is a nuanced portrait of a family trying to cope with the emotional depredations caused by not one but two of its members grappling with mental illness. It follows the family from its beginnings when Margaret and John meet at a party in 1960s London to the present day and a new start.

Almost two years after that first meeting, Margaret returns from visiting her parents in America to find that John has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This is not his first episode of mental illness: he suffered a breakdown when he was a student at Oxford but has told Margaret nothing about it. Undeterred and in love, Margaret marries him gritting her teeth in the face of his mother’s chilly welcome into the family.  We first meet her seventeen years after that London party, living in a small New England town. She and John have three children: Michael, the eldest, precocious, endlessly talkative but inward looking; Celia, the sharply intelligent middle child in alliance with Michael against Alec, the butt of his older brother’s constant barbs. They live in a rented house – their belongings in storage in England until John’s American assignment is finished – and holiday in a borrowed cabin in Maine. When a second job in the UK comes to an end, the family is uprooted again but Michael begs to return to London, apparently to complete his schooling with friends. While Michael is in England, John’s health spirals into a catastrophic decline. As the family struggles to recover from this crushing blow, it becomes clear that Michael is bedevilled by his own illness. Having begun with a painful loss, the novel ends on a note of hope with a new start and the hope of recovery.

Haslett narrates his novel through the voices of the five family members, flitting back and forth over the decades since Margaret and John first met. Each character’s voice sings out strongly, offering their own insight into the family’s story and the ways in which John’s and Michael’s illnesses have played into their lives and relationships. Alec is uncomfortable with intimacy, Celia works as a youth counsellor and convinces herself that her partner will leave her while Margaret finds herself cast in a caring role after years of denial. Haslett’s writing is striking: ‘I’m not a doll in the house of my mother’s imaginings’ thinks the young Margaret, a continent away from home. The loneliness of mental illness is captured vividly in John: ‘The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle endlessly private’. The quiet divvying up between siblings is beautifully caught in Alec’s relationship with Celia: ‘We monitored each other’s responsibility for the family, watchful for any sign of defection, as though we were on a desert island together, each surreptitiously building an escape raft that the other occasionally burned’. Michael’s increasingly manic sections are darkly funny, becoming sharply poignant as his illness takes hold and his medication fails. It’s a carefully layered construction, both wrenching and convincing. Those of us blessed with good mental health should count our lucky stars.