When I was 16, I didn’t think there was a better writer than Clive Barker. Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show were among my favorite books. I spent three or four months immersed in the thousand page glory of Imagica. My first experience reading short stories for pleasure, rather than as a requirement for an English class, came in the form of Barker’s Books of Blood. All of that is to say, when Galilee came out in 1998, I was well-versed in Barker’s unique blend of horror and fantasy. I bought the hardcover version as soon as I could scrape together enough allowance money. That night, I sat down to read what would surely be Barker’s grandest achievement. I couldn’t make it through twenty pages.
Simply put, Galilee wasn’t the kind of book I expected from Barker. His other novels opened with bursts of magic or violence or sex. Often, the reader was transported to a strange land with strange creatures. But here was a book that opened with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s role in the construction of the narrator’s home. Here was a book that was more concerned with family history than with the fantastical or the horrific. I put the book down.
Fast-forward fourteen years. Through the course of those years, I realized that there are, of course, many better writers than Clive Barker. I transitioned away from fantasy and horror. Slowly, I found my way to (deservedly) lauded writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, to contemporary writers like Tim O’Brien and Margaret Atwood. Here were writers who could thrill me every bit as much as Barker had done, but they could also reach me with beautiful language and interesting stylistic choices. In other words, my tastes developed past the sort of visceral thrills we seek out as teenagers. I grew up. Still, every few years I go back and re-read a little Barker. I dip back into Weaveworld or Imagica. I flip through one of his collections of short-stories. I never went back to Galilee, though. My thoughts on the book were stubbornly linked to that night when I was 16, when I opened the book expecting the fantastic and encountered the mundane.
It’s a shame I didn’t go back sooner, because looking at it now, it’s pretty clear to me that it’s Barker’s best novel. Galilee is the story of two families, the Gearys (take two parts Kennedy and mix with one part Hurst) and the Barbarossas (pull a random assortment of gods from Greek, Roman, Norse, and middle-eastern myth, plant them in the here and now, and you’re getting close to understanding them). The Gearys and the Barbarossas are linked through years of conflict, love, revenge, tragedy, and deceit. The story of how the two families intertwine is fascinating, but it is also a slow, meandering story. The book is narrated by a member of the Barbarossa clan, Maddox. Barker lets Maddox tell the story in his way, giving us drips and drops from centuries of family histories. Sometimes those bits are horrific or fantastical – right in keeping with Barker’s other work – but more often they take on the grandiose quality of myth as is the case with Maddox’s discussions of the history of the Geary family. It is probably telling that those sections – the ones detailing the Gearys’ place in American history – are the ones that sang to me as I read the novel. What could have been a dry tale of wealth and power takes on the heft of legend. I would have hated those secctions as a teenager. Now, older and wiser, I was able to find a real depth of humanity in them. Galilee doesn’t have the punchiness of Barker’s earlier work. It takes its time but is the richer for it.
These days, I tend to read a lot of short work. I love the short story form, and I invest a lot of my reading time in that kind of work. It was nice to sink down into a big, sprawling epic. It was nice to be reminded that some narratives can be patient, that they can lay an awful lot of cards on the table before the game even begins. Galilee isn’t a 16 year old’s kind of book. But that’s okay, because it certainly felt plenty entertaining to me now. All these years later, Barker can still give me goosebumps, even when I don’t expect him to.
Total number of pages: 582, FoA pages: 14,832 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)