The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

 Source: Free review copy received from the publisher

Five words from the blurb: gothic, family, saga, ghosts, home

The Barrowfields is a strange mix of two different books. It begins and ends as a deliciously spooky Gothic tale, but has an ordinary story about a boy attending college in the middle. The entire thing was beautifully written, but I thought it didn’t quite work as a whole.

The book begins in North Carolina, with a family moving into a mansion in which disturbing events happened to the previous occupants. I loved the creepy atmosphere and thought it was a fantastic start to an original story.

About a third of the way in, the story abruptly changed to one of a boy heading off to college for the first time. Again, the writing felt very accomplished. It reminded me of the greats in American literary fiction, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Michael Chabon. The characters were all beautifully developed and I felt a real connection to them. It perfectly captured the mixture of emotions felt by someone leaving home for the first time – the apprehension and loneliness were described more vividly than anything I’ve read before.

Unfortunately, the fantastic characterisation was then ruined by the reintroduction of weirdness. It jarred badly after so many chapters of realism. On its own, the ending would have been good; but after reading such a touching centre section about young love I found the ghostly horses ridiculous.

At last I began to resolve a shape, almost out of the corner of my eye. A lone horse, white with a white mane and rutilant eyes, skeletal and specterlike, was revealed inch by subtle inch from the parting gloom. It stood alone before us, lambent in the waking light of the nascent horned moon.

Phillip Lewis is clearly a talented writer and, if he sticks to just one genre, I’m sure his next novel will be outstanding. The bizarre nature of The Barrowfields will ensure I remember it for a long time to come. I just wish it was for all the right reasons.


6 replies on “The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis”

Amy, Sorry I missed your comment – it was buried in my spam folder 🙁 Thanks for the kind words. I’m pleased I was able to reduce your TBR pile a little bit.

Hi Jackie, I ordered a copy of this one after reading your review last year, but have only got around to reading it this month. Having read through your review again just now I find I concur with you on every point. I loved the early chapters about Henry Sr. and the “vulture house” – really superb writing and the author set up so many themes to get his teeth into, but then suddenly the focus shifts to Henry Jr. going off to college and all this melodrama with Story and her family. Whilst the writing was still good, this felt very run-of-the-mill and didn’t really connect to the first part of the book all that well. I also really hated the way the author withheld until the end of the book the vital piece of information that explained why Henry had to leave and didn’t want to return to Old Buckram. Instead we had almost 200 pages of Henry Jr’s “pain” about home and his abandonment of his sister without truly understanding why. Admittedly when you find out in the closing pages it all makes sense and retrospectively you feel sympathy for him, but why would you sabotage a character like that, for the sake of a shock reveal? And yes, the ghostly horses were silly. It’s a memorable book, and I’d definitely read whatever Lewis writes next, but I was a bit frustrated by his debut – it could have been brilliant but sadly fell short.

David, Yes, this was a frustrating read. It was so nearly brilliant, but something (normally quite small) just got in the way and distracted from things. It just shows how hard it is to create amazing writing. Things that look effortless take such skill. Lewis clearly has a lot of skill. Hopefully, his writing will improve and subsequent books will be better.

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