Although the novelís setting is fairly recent (the early 1980s), the aura of this Appalachian tale harkens to earlier days, perhaps the turn of the century, a feature that could be in tune with the manner of life of the Astor family: a love of books and music, a world built around the pursuit of knowledge and the arts, an abundance of things to occupy the mind. In fact, once the family takes up residence in the debilitated old mansion where murder once occurred, it becomes their own unique abode, the forbidden tamed, separated from the small town of Old Buckram by a barren area called The Barrowfields.
Here young Henry Astor begins his love affair with literature and music at his fatherís knee, absorbing the manís wisdom and insatiable appetite for words as well as a growing concern for the manís need for solitude in which to pen his own story. Refusing to be intimidated by this garish, overbuilt edifice, Henryís wife, Eleonor, accepts the challenge and claims it for her own as her children, Henry, Jr. and Threnody, grow.
Beginning with Henry, Sr., the characters are as unique as their environs: a singular man in love with the written word who only finds peace surrounded by books: ďI write. Itís the only thing besides death to make time stop.Ē Young Henry idolizes his father despite the eccentricities that define him, learning the parameters of his fatherís passion, the path to another world through the words of those now gone, a place where light and darkness coexist, respite for a searching soul. The females in the family take a lesser
but not unimportant role. The younger Henry loves best the evenings he reads to his younger sister, Threnody, at night.
The authorís images are precise, oddly fitting in a landscape that contrasts natureís beauty and its barrenness. Alongside the verdant valley of Henry Astorís domain, his massive collection of books, are those who exist in dire poverty,
surviving on hard work and grit. Such are the boyís grandparents, whose windy shack is lavishly heated with firewood to assuage an old womanís failing lungs. She refuses to relinquish her cigarettes,
and her husband is unable to deny her needs. Their humble abode is a bizarre contrast to the gothic monstrosity where the others dwell. The boy adores these eccentric people, whose affection is given freely.
This gothic estate, enshrouded in tales of madness and murder, now shelters another family, a woman who splashes the dark with color.
Her strength and generosity create a home for her very eccentric husband and beloved children.
In this strange place, young Henryís memories are made, hours sitting wordlessly beside his fatherís desk, the arias his mother teaches him on the piano, the empty space of the Barrowfields--and the vast unknown of other lands that will one day call, a respite from shattered dreams and grief, rejecting the awkward architecture of youth for a beckoning future.
The intimate sense of history disappears when Henry enters the wider world, one of his own making, furnished with a loyal group of friends and a girl named Story
who he wants to make his own. Though his desire is out of sync with reality, Henry learns that wanting is often not enough. Well-versed in patience, he pushes the past into the shadows, makes space for a new love, hoping she will come. Story is the catalyst of his maturity, the balm of shared grief softening harsh edges, tempering bitterness and disappointment. Like the haunting language of Wolfeís brilliant novel
You Canít Go Home Again, The Barrowfields melds past with present, the continuity of family and the gift of forgiveness, a place where truth emerges and settles into the human heart. The author loses some of the nostalgic tenderness of the first half of his tale in the cacophony of modern times. Still, those early elegiac pages are richly drawn, a faded tapestry, perhaps, as a character leaves what came before in anticipation of the new. What endures is the angst and tenderness, the vulnerability of youth and the tentative nature of hope that resonate in the dark of night, those precious memories that refuse to give up residence.