“Far Beyond the Gates,” by Philip Lee Williams

Philip Lee Williams

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Rodgers

Can a story save us? Do the stories we tell ourselves and others shape and define us? Can we ever break out of those stories to get to the truth, the truth behind secrets that have the capacity to both hurt and heal us when they’re finally revealed? In Far Beyond the Gates (Mercer University Press, 2020), Philip Lee Williams invites readers to invest their time and emotion into the lives of the two main characters, thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher, Lucy McKay, and her father, Pratt McKay, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and world-renowned scholar.

In dual viewpoints that alternate between Lucy’s journal entries and Pratt’s voice recordings, the novel opens with Lucy arriving at the gated community where her father lives in his second home, a grand mansion filled with the trappings of a successful author who has rubbed literary shoulders with the rich and famous. Divorced from her former husband, James, a tormented writer who lives in the shadow of William Faulkner’s ghost back in Oxford, MS, Lucy has purchased a new journal from the iconic Square Books in Oxford for her trip to check on her dad during summer break. By keeping a journal, perhaps Lucy can convince her dad that she’s “doing her writing.” And maybe she can convince herself, because surely she’s expected to become a writer, too. A gifted teacher, Lucy loves her students but compares her teacher’s salary and self-worth to that of her celebrated father.

Pratt is barely sixty and has recently been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). He’s divorced and lives alone in the big house with the help of a part-time assistant and a home health care nurse. He’s summoned Lucy to come for the summer. By the time she arrives, she’s shocked at how much the disease has ravaged Pratt’s body and his emotions seem all over the place, one second he’s shouting in frustration, enraged by his disease, and the next slumped over in silence with the secrets he’s kept from her. Secrets Lucy knows nothing about when she first arrives.

At night, she wonders if her father is up in his room talking to ghosts? The reader knows Pratt is speaking a lifetime of confessions into a tape recorder for his daughter to listen to at some other time, perhaps on her drive back to Oxford at the end of the summer where she will resume her teaching? Through his recordings, we learn Pratt is a man broken in body and spirit, his cache of literary honors unable to save him, but can gaining his daughter’s approval ease his guilt and soothe his own childhood traumas?

While Pratt confesses his love for Lucy and decades of regret into the tape recorder before he loses his ability to speak coherently, Lucy pens her own pains and regrets into her journal. Her entries are filled with descriptions of her new love interest, Sean, her dad’s landscaper with his own past to wrestle with, special students Lucy has taught over the years, and the nagging questions about how and where she fits into the world. Both Lucy and Pratt wrestle with their views on faith, pondering if there is something beyond ourselves.

My copy is highlighted and loved up with so many reflective and descriptive phrases. Here are a couple of examples: “I want to believe in the sanctuary of benevolent ghosts, Lucy. I want to know that the dead and the damned do not hold grudges.” And this one: “Victor jabbered like a spring blue jay, and you were silent as a midnight cemetery.”

My only criticism, and it’s probably a matter of personal taste, are the passages laced with Pratt’s meandering thoughts about his daughter’s sex life. Other readers may feel differently. Overall it does make sense that a man like Pratt, who has spent his adult life chasing from one sexual conquest to another, will naturally wonder if his daughter is being loved properly and with the respect she deserves.

The author teases out this multilayered story, dropping hints along the way of a lifetime of failures and regrets, loss and conquests, and the hope for forgiveness and redemption. Far Beyond the Gates will appeal to readers who appreciate good literature and are seeking something beyond the written page. For that’s what a good story does. It lives on in the hearts and minds of its readers as it takes on a life of its own, even as we turn to the next book or to a chore we’ve been putting off. Two days after finishing this book, my thoughts drift to the image of a little boy running and hiding under his bed and clinging to his doll, Bennie.

As a writer, I couldn’t help but notice the abbreviation for multiple sclerosis, MS, is the same for manuscript and Mississippi, three recurring words throughout the narrative. Every writer striving to pen meaningful literary fiction should read this novel.

Philip Lee Williams is the celebrated author of numerous volumes of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. A member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, Williams won the 2004 Michael Shaara Award for the best Civil War novel published in the U.S., has been named Georgia Author of the Year four times, is the recipient of the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and is a winner of a Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities.

Far Beyond the Gates was released at the beginning of the pandemic here in the U.S., forcing the author to cancel his book tour. Do yourself a favor. Read this novel and let the narrative seep into your bones so you can summon it at will. This story holds the capacity to offer hope and healing, a salve on a wounded world.

I highly recommend it.

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  1. Thank you for publishing my review of Far Beyond the Gates. Truly a pleasure to read this novel and pen my thoughts.

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