Phillip Lewis's debut novel The Barrowfields is a remarkable story, beautifully written and wise. Henry's journey resonates with self-recognition and affirms that going home can open the path to the future.
The language is lush with a penchant for rarefied words, a nod to Thomas Wolfe's poetic and verbose style, and the novel is imbued with vivid descriptions and cinematic scenes.
The protagonist Henry Aster narrates the story of his family, beginning with the first settlers in Old Buckham. Settled deep in 'the belly' of the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, "a town of ghosts and superstitions," and populated by under a thousand people, 'everyone else lived in the hills beyond.' His grandparents survived on little but were content.
Henry's father was considered "awful queer," a bookish boy who idolized Thomas Wolf. University provided an escape and brought him a love of Poe and Faulkner. After graduation he teaches while writing, winning early acclaim before faltering. He wants to write the great American novel--to prove his worth. Then he is called back home to care for his failing mother. The family moves into an abandoned mansion on a hill, a 'macabre' house with dark corners, haunted by ghosts. A lawyer by day, at night he retreats into a cubbyhole room to struggle with his unmanageable novel and his growing alcoholism.
"Aster's work, for all its brilliance, is impenetrable."
Henry had idolized his dad; they shared a love of books and music. But he and his sister Threnody watch their father retreat from the world until he is a 'ghost.' They pledged to always be there for the other. After the tragic death of a new sibling, their father succumbs to despair and deserts his family.
Henry leaves Old Buckram for university and law school. He falls in love with Story, a conflicted girl with her own father issues and a fear of intimacy. As he supports Story in her search for her father, returning to her home town of Lot's Folly, Henry realizes that he also must go home again and confront his past, and face the sister he abandoned.
" I suppose that one can never leave a place completely."Wolfe's influence pervades the novel, from the setting and theme of the search for the father to the influence of Wolfe on Henry and his father: just before Henry graduates from Chapel Hill he reads Look Homeward, Angel and You Can't Go Home Again and "never got over them entirely."
The role of books is hugely important. The Barrowfields is a 'wasteland of nothingness," a desolate opening in the woods outside of Old Buckham. When the town gathers there to burn Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Henry implores his father to stop the book burning. In a frighting scene, his father stands up to the crowd to defend and protect the volume from the fire.
Our past leaves its scars and questions, and painful as it is, we become free by confronting it. Lewis has written a story that hearkens back to the great literature of the past while offering insight into the universal human condition.
You can learn more about Lewis and his debut novel in my interview with the author in my blog post on February 26, 2017.
I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
"Mythic in its sweep and mesmeric in its prose, The Barrowfields is a breathtaking debut about the darker side of devotion, the limits of forgiveness, and the reparation power of shared pasts." from the publisher's website
Publication Date March 7, 2017
$26 hard cover