Tag Archives: The Barrowfields

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

This first batch of January paperbacks kicks of with my book of 2017: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 which traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Identity theft seems to be the theme of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails and finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title. It’s an intriguing idea and I very much enjoyed the somewhat lighter No and Me a few years ago.

Heading further into dark territory, Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains. Lawyer Henry Aster sets up house with his wife and children in a crumbling mansion so that he can take care of his ailing mother. Henry spends his nights writing and drinking, slowly sinking into a deep depression. Years later his story is told by his son, burdened with his own tragedy. Lewis knows how to spin a story, managing to keep my attention over the novel’s 300+ pages despite a few too many Southern gothic touches.

J, Robert Lennon’s Broken River also has a touch of the gothic mashed up nicely with a slice of noir, this time in upstate New York. In a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, a couple moves to freshly renovated house, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old with them, Unbeknownst to them, the house has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the family that lived in it. Lennon’s deftly handled plot revolves around a web of coincidence and misunderstandings which finally unravels. Not an unalloyed success for me but it’s well worth a read.

That’s it for the first January paperback preview. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow shortly…

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

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.

Books to Look Out for April 2017: Part Two

Cover imageGiven all that’s been happening in the US over the past few years, it’s a brave author who decides to write a piece of fiction about contemporary America but perhaps Hari Zunzru’s White Tears isn’t the state of the nation novel it first appears, more a comment on race relations. Two very different young New Yorkers, friends since college, share a passion for music and are now the rising stars of the city’s music scene. A chance discovery of an old blues song sets in train a chain of events which leaves them in grave danger. ‘Electrifying, subversive and wildly original, White Tears is a ghost story and a love story, a story about lost innocence and historical guilt. This unmissable novel penetrates the heart of a nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge and exploitation, and holding a mirror up to the true nature of America today’ say the publishers. The music theme seems to have cropped up several times recently: last year saw the publication of both Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and Kim Echlin’s much overlooked Under the Visible Life which I’ll grab any chance I can to mention.

Set in the summer of 1920, Laird Hunt’s The Evening Road explores a more extreme racial tension. Two women are on the road, one black the other white. Smart, attractive Ottie Lee Henshaw is caught up in a suffocating marriage and suffering the unwelcome attention of a lecherous boss; Calla Destry is trying to find the lover who has promised to help her escape her violent circumstances. Meanwhile Klan members are gathering in Marvel. ‘The Evening Road is the story of two remarkable women on the move through an America riven by fear and hatred, eager to flee the secrets they have left behind’ say the publishers. Both Emma Donoghue and Hilary Mantel are fans. Cover image

Tensions run high in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Devil and Webster which explores student politics at an elite New England college where Naomi Roth, a feminist scholar, has been elected president. When a student protest breaks out which includes her daughter, she’s initially supportive but the focus of attention on a Palestinian student strains the campus atmosphere to breaking point leaving her overwhelmed. ‘The Devil and Webster is shot through with caustic comedy, and yet the Faustian notes are a persistent reminder that the possibility of corruption – personal or institutional – remains our persistent companion, however good our intentions might be’ according to the publishers. I’m a sucker for campus novels and this one sounds particularly intriguing.

Staying in New England for what sounds like a very different novel: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has been billed by Ann Patchett as ‘one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade’ while the publishers liken it to Patrick Dewitt’s wonderful The Sisters Brothers which immediately snagged my attention. Samuel has spent years on the run but has moved to his late wife’s hometown with his teenage daughter who is increasingly curious about what happened to her mother not to mention the twelve scars on Samuel’s body, each from a bullet. ‘Both a coming of age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the price we pay to protect the people we love most’ say the publishers whose synopsis suggests the makings of a rollicking good bit of storytelling.

Cover imagePhillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields takes us south of New England to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Just before Henry is born, his father – a lawyer and frustrated novelist – returns to where he was brought up, moving into a gothic mansion nicknamed ‘the vulture house’. Henry grows up in awe of his brilliant father but a death in the family brings about an unravelling which leaves Henry’s respect for him in tatters. Henry flees the family home, forced to return by events many years later. I’m not entirely sure about this one but Jenni Fagan’s dubbed it ‘A beautiful, evocative novel with an amazing sense of place and an understated, dark sensibility. A brilliant debut’ so I’m willing to give it a go.

That’s it for new April titles. As ever a click on a title will take you to a longer synopsis should your interest be piqued and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…