Thursday, June 19, 2008

“A Distant Shore” by Caryl Phillips

Date of publication: 2003
Genre: fiction, drama, travel
Themes: interracial relationships, migration, racism, loneliness, friendship, old age
Setting and time: 20th-century England and a nameless war-torn African country

Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2003

About the author: Caryl Phillips was born in 1958 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and brought up in Leeds. He is the author of several novels and non-fiction books, but he has also written for film, television, theatre and radio. Much of his writing focuses on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora in both Europe and the Americas. His novel The Finale Passage (1985) broke new ground as the first second-generation Black British novel to return to the experience of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’, that is to say the first post-war West Indians to arrive in England. Phillips is a diasporic writer, whose work rejects investment in national belonging, preferring instead the border spaces of the black Atlantic contact zone at which Africa, America and Europe uneasily encounter one another. Phillips is therefore concerned with ‘the gift of displacement’ and ‘the high anxiety of belonging’. One of his most interesting novels is called The Nature of Blood (1997) and tells the stories of a German Jewish girl during World War II, a young Ethiopian Jewish woman resettled in Israel and an imaginary Othello, portrayed as an African general in late-16th-century Venice. His most popular novel to date (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) is Crossing the River (1993), a series of journeys across the Atlantic and an exploration of the legacy of slavery. Because of his concerns for the narrative structure of migration, Philipps shares many similarities with other key diasporic writers, such as David Dabydeen and Salman Rushdie.

Plot: (*may contain spoilers*) It is the story of two people, an old English lady and an African refugee. Apparently, they don’t have much in common, apart from the fact that they both live in a new housing estate in the north of England. In reality, they are both extremely lonely and desperate to find somebody to talk to. They slowly bond, but are haunted by their past. Dorothy has just walked away from a thirty-year marriage, a couple of love affairs gone wrong and the death of her sister. Solomon has escaped his country because of the war that has killed his family and he hopes that his new country will provide him with a safe haven in which he might enjoy the decent behaviour and graciousness that he believes the English habitually practice. Unfortunately, Solomon’s expectations clash with the prejudice of the people in the small English village he has just moved to.

Some thoughts: The book is most of all an exploration of isolation and consolation, of friendship and loneliness. It is a sad story, even depressing at times. Postcolonial writers have explored prejudice and racism in all their facets, and yet there is much to write about it. Those of you who know the northeast of Italy may understand why the themes of the book are not unknown to me. Nonetheless, I feel that sometimes the whole thing is dealt with in a simplistic way: Solomon’s thoughts and opinions are often omitted or very briefly explained, while the thugs’ motivations for discriminating Solomon are completely left out. However, I liked the part about Solomon's journey to England as an illegal immigrant, because it shows the human tragedies that lie behind this phenomenon. I also appreciated the idea of a male writer using a female protagonist and the unusual connection between the loneliness of an old English lady and the same feeling experienced by an African refugee in a somehow-hostile English village. This relates with the title of the novel: England is ‘a distant shore’ for an African man, both in the geographical and the metaphorical meaning. The aloof manners of English people become a burden for both Solomon and Dorothy, who are unable to understand that they can help each other. And when they do, it is too late. I wonder why Phillips, a West Indian by birth, made Solomon an African man, though. It would have been much easier to use his own heritage and let Solomon have deeper thoughts on the differences between his country and England. In terms of style, the language is simple but the structure is a bit problematic. The story is not told in chronological order and the narration constantly shifts from one character to another, with the risk of confusing the reader. I’ve read that a complex narrative structure but a relatively simple language is a characteristic of Phillips's writing, so I take it as a stylistic choice, rather than as a fault of the novel. This novel was on a reading list for a university course on Black British writing alongside Small Island by Andrea Levy and The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon. Giving that, I feel that other novels by the same author might have been more enlightening on the subject. I really liked the idea behind the novel though, especially the unexpected and unexpressed link between the two main characters. I am very curious about The Nature of Blood, which also features some interesting connections between the characters. I have always been fascinated by Othello and how he came to live in Venice, so I'll put it in my want-to-read list.


  1. Some Nigerian writer's to watch out for:
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Buchi Emecheta
    Chinua Achebe
    Rosemary Esehagu
    Helen Oyeyemi
    Chris Abani

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