'The Barrowfields' is a deeply personal debut
A heartbreaking love letter to literature, loss and life changing choices, “The Barrowfields” by Philip Lewis is an absolutely gorgeous debut novel. Opening its pages is like looking directly into the mind of the novel’s protagonist, Henry Asther, and it reads as an intimate tale of sorrow, addiction and growing up.
“The Barrowfields” is set in fictional Old Buckram, North Carolina — a place filled with crippling poverty that is slow to modernize. It is there, in a ghostly skeleton of a mansion high on a hill, that Henry Aster is raised by an aloof father, who has a massive literary ambitions and a worsening drinking habit, and a quiet, yet supportive, mother. Henry is in awe of his father’s ambitions; his father works as a lawyer during the day, but writes and plays piano in his gigantic library all night. In his young adulthood, Henry begins to take after his father. When tragedy strikes, leaving Henry, his mother and young sister alone, he departs for college and resolves to never return home. He leaves the house on the hill and his mother and young sister to fend for themselves.
Through a new and shocking journey in the real world, Henry falls deeply and perplexingly in love. The woman, ironically named Story, brings her own baggage to their relationship. Eventually, after graduate school, Henry finds himself traveling back to his childhood home, which stands unoccupied on the hill, and in attempts to resolve his inner demons, grapples with his feelings for Story and find himself. Through inspired and shrewd prose, Lewis tells the story of the challenging and thought provoking life of Henry Aster.
Although, this is Lewis’s first novel, one would never guess that he is new to the world of authorship. He has close ties to the narrative and setting of his fictional tale, as he is from a mountainous North Carolina town. He also practices law, collects rare books and studies language much like the fictional Henry Aster and his father. It is obvious he has many personal ties to his first novel — the passion and realism radiating off the pages is unparalleled to any recent realistic fiction piece.
“The Barrowfields” is clever, with a hint of nostalgia and plenty of intellect. It contains a great deal of literary references, ranging from Poe to Wolfe, which provide lovely metaphors and layers of additional meaning to the story. The narrative prose is precise and calculated, creating a beautiful tone for the reader that makes the piece captivating and impossible to put down.
The most striking part of the novel is its deep authenticity. It's rare to pick up a piece of modern realist literature that feels like it is surrounding you. It was nearly impossible to separate my reality from the reality of the book, and that is important in regards to its themes and messages. The portrayal of the hope and courage we are forced to adopt in the face of grief and sorrow is incredibly genuine. It's refreshing to read something that has such a strong sense of truth.
The world that Philip Lewis creates in the “The Barrowfields” is vivid and honest. I urge any lover of literature and flowing prose who needs a story of hope and courage to read it. I look forward to whatever Lewis has in store for readers next; I predict a great deal of success with his debut piece. It is the type of novel that just thinking about makes me wish I could unread it’s every page just so I could read them all again.
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Penguin Random House
March 7th, 2017