From Caryl Phillips--acclaimed author of The Nature of Blood and The Atlantic Sound--a masterful new novel set in contemporary England, about an African man and an English woman whose hidden lives, and worlds, are revealed in their fragile, fateful connection.
Dorothy and Solomon live in a new housing estate on the outskirts of an English village. She's recently bought her bungalow; he's recently become the night watchman. He is black, an immigrant. She is white, a recently retired music teacher. They are both solitary, reticent outsiders. When they move tenuously toward each other and their paths briefly cross, neither of them can know that it will be the last true human contact either will have.
The novel unfolds into the past to show us how Solomon and Dorothy have arrived at this moment: Solomon, a former soldier, escaping the horrors of a war-ravaged African country, entering England illegally, a non-man with no resources but his own waning strength, and no comprehension of the society that both hates and harbors him; Dorothy, the product of a troubled childhood and a messy divorce, fleeing the repercussions of a desperate obsession. In scene after resonant scene, we watch as Solomon and Dorothy come to live inside themselves, closing off from a world that has changed--and changed them--beyond recognition.
In their powerfully compelling stories, Caryl Phillips has created a brilliant and moving portrait of modern human displacement: from home, from heart, and from self.
Desperate, displaced people populate the latest from award-winning essayist, critic and novelist Phillips (Crossing the River; The Nature of Blood). Dorothy is a divorced retired schoolteacher with a troubled past and an increasingly precarious present, drifting further into depression and mental illness in the small northern England town of Weston where she has gone to flee the death of her sister and a series of reckless love affairs with married men. Solomon, in his early 30s, is a survivor of a war-torn African country, witness to events and atrocities almost too painful to recount, which include the execution of his own family. They meet in a small corner of England, given one last chance at redemption and belonging-this time with one another-before prejudice and brute violence destroy even that. Phillips crafts his novel with great skill, portraying his characters with a faithful eye that reveals their inner beauty as clearly as their defects. A true master of form, he manipulates narrative time (which skips, speeds and sometimes runs backward) and perspective to create a disjointed sense of place that mirrors the tortured, fractured inner lives of his characters. Phillips's vision is of a splintered, fragile world where little seems to have inherent meaning and love is opportunistic and fleeting. As Dorothy reaches her tragic end, she receives a visit from the husband who left her long ago for a younger woman; he himself has now been abandoned. The message of our inherent aloneness is clear. As Dorothy herself says, in a note to one of her married lovers: "Abandonment is a state that is not alien to man." The book expresses an even bleaker view: that abandonment is not only a risk, but our natural condition.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 07, 2005
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Excerpt from A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips
England has changed. These days it's difficult to tell who's from around here and who's not. Who belongs and who's a stranger. It's disturbing. It doesn't feel right. Three months ago, in early June, I moved out here to this new development of Stoneleigh. None of the old villagers seem comfortable with the term "new development." They simply call Stoneleigh the "new houses on the hill." After all, our houses are set on the edge of Weston, a village that is hardly going to give up its name and identity because some developer has seen a way to make a quick buck by throwing up some semi-detached bungalows, slapping a carriage lamp on the front of them and calling them "Stoneleigh." If anybody asks me I just say I live in Weston. Everybody does, except one or two who insist on writing their addresses as "Stoneleigh." The postman told me that they add "Weston" as an afterthought, as though the former civilises the latter. He was annoyed, and he wanted me to know that once upon a time there had been a move to change the name of Weston to Market Weston, but it never caught on. He was keen that I should understand that there was nothing wrong with Weston, and once he started I could hardly get him to stop. That was last week when he had to knock on the door for he had a package that wouldn't fit through the letterbox, and he said that he didn't want to squash it up ("You never know what's in it, do you, love?"). He told me that he had been instructed by head office to scratch out the name "Stoneleigh" if it appeared on any envelopes. Should the residents turn out to be persistent offenders, then he was to politely remind them that they lived in Weston. But he told me that he didn't think that he would be able to do this. That actually if they wanted to live in cloud-cuckoo land, then who was he to stop them? He didn't tell this to his boss, of course, because that would have been his job. There and then, on the spot.
So our village is divided into two. At the bottom of the hill there is a road that runs west to the main town which is five miles away, and east towards the coast which is about fifty miles away. Everybody knows this because just before you enter Weston from the town side there's a sign that says it's fifty miles to the coast. Then after that there's the big sign that reads "Weston" and announces the fact that we are twinned with some town in Germany and a village in the south of France. In the estate agent's bumf about "Stoneleigh" it says that during the Second World War the German town was bombed flat by the RAF, and the French village used to be full of Jews who were all rounded up and sent to the camps. I can't help feeling that it makes Weston seem a bit tame by comparison. Apparently, the biggest thing that had ever happened in Weston was Mrs. Thatcher closing the pits, and that was over twenty years ago.
The only history around these parts is probably in the architecture. The terraces on both sides of the main road are typical miners' houses, built of dull red brick; the original inhabitants would have had to bathe in the kitchen, and their toilets would have been at the end of the street. However, these houses have all long since been replumbed, and the muck has been blasted off the faces of most of them so that they now look almost quaint. Mind you, the people who live down there still have to deal with the noise of the traffic at all times of day and night, and I imagine it's murder to keep the windows clean. Besides the terraced houses there's a petrol station, a fish-and-chip shop, a newsagent-cum-grocery store, a sub-post office that opens three mornings a week, and behind the far row of houses a pub that sits smack on the canal, which runs parallel to the main road. There's also a small stone church, with nicely tended grounds, but I won't be needing to go in there. Stoneleigh is up a short steep hill and it overlooks the main road. We're the newcomers, or posh so-and-sos, as I heard a vulgar woman in the post office call us. There are not that many of us, just two dozen bungalows arranged in two culs-de-sac, but there are plenty of satellite dishes, and outside some of the houses there are two cars. Me, I don't drive. We don't have any shops up here, so if I do want anything I have to trek down the hill to the newsagent-cum-grocery store. Either that or catch the bus the five miles into town.
In May, I retired as a schoolteacher. Four years ago the school went comprehensive and since then standards have plummeted. It left me in a bit of a spot as I've spent most of my life banging on about how it would be better if kids of all levels and backgrounds could be educated together and learn from each other. It's what Dad believed. He hated seeing the grammar-school boys in their white shirts and ties, and their flash blazers, while the kids from the secondary modern could barely find a pair of socks that matched.