Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields

A richly textured coming-of-age story about fathers and sons, home and family, recalling classics by Thomas Wolfe and William Styron, by a powerful new voice in fiction

Just before Henry Aster’s birth, his father—outsized literary ambition and pregnant wife in tow—reluctantly returns to the small Appalachian town in which he was raised and installs his young family in an immense house of iron and glass perched high on the side of a mountain. There, Henry grows up under the writing desk of this fiercely brilliant man. But when tragedy tips his father toward a fearsome unraveling, what was once a young son’s reverence is poisoned and Henry flees, not to return until years later when he, too, must go home again.

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 reparative power of shared pasts.

I am fairly certain that to qualify for the genre “literary fiction” there is only one requirement:  that your book must be as morose as possible. Look up Literary Fiction in the thesaurus and you will find the words Depressing, Melancholy, Miserable, Sulky, and Sullen. I cannot name a single book from the genre that does not fit this description. Maybe I’m wrong. But all the examples I can think of are just this.

The Barrowfields is all of these. It starts out interestingly enough–almost reminiscent of Cold Mountain in its descriptions of Appalachia. You can hear the mountain twang in the narrator’s voice as he speaks about his father’s family history. Only later do you realize you’re no longer in the 1800s, but in modern times.

That shift really confused me–as did the change in the narrator’s voice. At some point, he loses that twang and gains a snobby upper class air. To be fair, his father raises him in literature, but the vocabulary used is a bit obnoxious. Words like excrescence, deliquesce, and indomitable are commonplace in his story.

We lose characters a lot in this book too. People just drop off for no discernable reason–his mother, his school friends. People come into his life and then he moves on without them. Time passes, and he isn’t interested in waiting on it.

I feel very  melancholy about The Barrowfields. I didn’t dislike it, nor did I particularly like it. It’s literary fiction, so I suppose I am meant to feel SOMETHING…and I do. I’m just not entirely sure what that SOMETHING is.

Blogging for Books and Hogarth provided a copy of this book for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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