Monday, March 13, 2017

Reading The Barrowfields by Philip Lewis

Phillip Lewis's first novel The Barrowfields is so beautifully written, so evocative, that I can arbitrarily open the book to a random scene and be transported.

I received a hardcover copy of the novel through Blogging for Books. I opened the book to a scene where the protagonist, Henry, is celebrating at a going-away party with his law school friends. They have rented a house at the beach. The girl of his dreams has invited herself, Story of the golden hair.

There is a lot of drinking going on and Henry's friend J.P. is pontificating about writing, which "made it all sound so easy and color-by-numbers" that it "drove nails into the palms of my consciousness." What his friend does not know is that Henry's father had been a failed writer, and as his early promise was snuffed out by depression and alcohol abuse, he had ended his life.

Story finally arrives, "her hair wild and windblown, and I was stricken. Hard to say I would have been more impressed if the clouds had parted and the lord god himself, the King, Elvis Arron Presley had appeared in her place. I stood there barely able to speak." She walks over to Henry to greet him, but he is "unable to conjure a single syllable out of the space between" them.

That evening the gang "decided to caravan over the bridge to Charleston for dinner even though not one among us should have been driving." J.P. is still drunkenly bending Henry's ear about writing. On the way back to the beach house, Henry sits next to Story in the back seat of the car, the radio playing "one good song after another. The music was perfect." Story was smiling. And then Lewis writes,
"Back at the beach house, someone proposed in honor of the luminous night and clear sky that we all walk out to look at the stars. The doors on the back of the house facing the ocean were open, and the rush and hum of the mighty rolling waves called in through the doors and pulled us out to the sea.
"There is something extraordinary about standing on the shore at night under such circumstances. It is the closest one can come to feeling immortal--or to recognizing the euphoria of insignificance at the edge of the immortal sea. On a clear night the effect is more pronounced, for the stars burn numberless in the sky and remind us that time is beyond our understanding and that the universe is indeed indifferent to us--yet hardly benign."
I was transported to my own vivid memories of nights under the multitudinous stars, aware of the vastness of the universe, and suffering the fearful knowledge of my own smallness.

Henry identifies the stars, learned at his father's side. And J.P. recites Byron's Darkness, depicting a fatalist view of end of the world under an indifferent, blind universe, which begins, 

"I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air" 

After which a girl sings from Schoolhouse Rock, "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here"--my favorite Schoolhouse Rock song. Henry defers an opportunity to recite, then in his "weakened state of nostalgic drunkenness" imagines his father there and feels "gut-sick and benumbed. In a moment's time I hear it all, as if ten million words from as many books fell at once onto my ears in a drowning yet intelligible cataract. I hear my father's voice and his incantations. A flood of prose, remembered, unremembered, leftover like hellish debris from a writer's son's childhood. Every word he'd ever said to me. Every poem. Every paragraph he'd written and said aloud. Put that away, I tell myself. Put that away."

And, dear readers, there you have Henry's story: the ghost of a failed father he wants to forget, the girl he wants in his future just beyond reach-- or waiting to be touched--and the universe's indifference arching overhead.

I will revisit this novel many times.

Read Lewis discussing the 'easter eggs' written into his novel at

Listen to a clip from the marvelous audiobook at

I received a free book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

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