Family secrets, a decadent and possibly haunted mansion, and an abundance of literary references?! Be still my heart! The Barrowfields, the brilliant debut novel by Phillip Lewis, is a beautifully done southern gothic with all the intrigue, romance, and twists one could hope for. Phillip’s highly-detailed narrative and soothing prose draw readers deep into the Carolina mountains for a riveting ride.
The story, told to us by the son of a brilliant but deeply-flawed writer who disappeared one day, has the feel of a darker, more mature To Kill A Mockingbird, a work which is, in fact, referenced at least twice in the book. This is due in part to Phillip’s adeptness at portraying a small town, complete with eccentric old ladies who hate books and/or love cats, lawyers who accept food for payment, and fire and brimstone preachings at funerals, book burnings, and regular Sunday services. The characters, both primary and supporting cast, are all quite colorful and alive–even the dead ones– and come together harmoniously to create a town that both draws one in and pushes one away.
I love how literary the book is- beginning with the story of a tortured writer and littered throughout with various discussions of the writing process, why writers write, opinions on famous authors and pieces of literature, and random and sundry literary Easter eggs for the bookish eye to discover. Phillip’s weaves motifs of escaping from one’s burden- whether that be a close-minded Appalachian village or a literal brick tied to one’s body– and that of black, brooding birds, free but fierce through the book. He also juxtaposes the elegant with the grotesque quite masterfully so that a disemboweled cat in a dress and a “damascened champagne bucket” flow easily into the same narrative. In short, Phillip’s is an English teacher’s dream!
The Barrowfields is lovely, haunting, and eerily familiar. Phillip Lewis is clearly a writer’s writer and has set the bar almost impossibly high with his first novel. I highly look forward to more darkly erudite tales from him!
*- I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.