A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips (Secker & Warburg, ISBN 0-436-20564-5, 320 pp)
When he’s not writing fiction, Caryl Phillips is a professor of migration and social order at Columbia University, and his latest novel A Distant Shore (recent winner of the Eurasia region Commonwealth Writers Prize) might almost be a case study for his classes there.
Migration and displacement have always been Phillips’s subjects, and in this book he moves away from his Caribbean connections to explore the effect of such upheavals on two people, and by extension whole communities, cut off from their roots. It’s a huge theme, but Phillips explores it in miniature, through the everyday lives of people who are first tossed about and then crushed by massive forces they don’t understand.
The story centres on Dorothy, an elderly Englishwoman, and Solomon, an African refugee. When the novel opens, they are neighbours on a new housing estate somewhere in the north of England. On the face of it the two couldn’t be more different, and yet they have much in common. Although Dorothy has lived in places and among people like this all her life, she is as solitary and out of place as Solomon, who has fled the civil war that has racked his homeland and left his family dead. Out of this common ground, and on Solomon’s initiative, the two of them begin edging towards friendship.
Almost as soon as it’s begun, however, the friendship is cut short. But there are signs that even without the single terrible event that severs their tentative connection, other things would have intervened to keep them strangers. For it soon becomes clear that, just as Dorothy’s present life is drifting, cut loose from her past, so her account of events is sometimes at odds with reality. Solomon first approaches Dorothy to offer to drive her to the doctor, whom she visits because, she tells him, she is suffering from stress. In fact, it’s something far more profound. From a conversation she has with her doctor, we learn that her sister is dead, although Dorothy has spoken of recently receiving a letter from her. Later Dorothy wonders why people are staring at her when she begins to polish Solomon’s car with her jacket.
From the flashbacks in her story, we learn that Dorothy has lost, through rejection or death, everyone who has ever been close to her, and her clumsy attempts to make new relationships have been rebuffed. It’s no wonder she’s disconnected herself from the real world.
The events that have shaped Solomon’s life — the massacre of his family in the civil war, the collapse of his country — are larger and more catastrophic, but Solomon is younger and more resilient than Dorothy, still hopeful that he can put the past behind him and start afresh. And yet by the time the reader learns of Solomon’s modest hopes, it’s already too late. Solomon, in his innocence, never stood a chance; only ignorance allows him to retain a shred of optimism, and even then he is implausibly naïve or preternaturally stoic in the face of the harsh reality presented by Phillips.
From the back of a police van, shortly after he arrives in England, Solomon peers outside and looks at the English.
Nobody is looking at anybody else, and it would appear that not only are these people all strangers to one another, but they seem determined to make sure that this situation will remain unchanged.
Solomon is apparently undeterred by this lack of a welcome. Just as Dorothy is disengaged from normality, Solomon is numbed by the tragedies that strike him. Both tell their stories in a flat, formal, sometimes absurdly dispassionate tone. When Solomon gets racist hate mail, he responds: “The boys I met down by the water, they suffer from this mental condition. Unfortunately, the letter loudly proclaims that such people reside in my immediate vicinity.”
This detachment makes it harder to feel for either one — which is a relief, because their misfortunes are so relentless. Solomon makes one real friend in England, Mike, who’s an outsider too — he’s Irish. But even his sympathy for immigrants is limited: “I want fish and chips, not curry and chips.” And Mike dies shortly afterwards, leaving Solomon to make yet another fresh start.
Other migrants offer Solomon no more friendship or understanding:
I had tried to talk to the few West Indian people I saw standing on the streets outside Sonja’s Caribbean Takeaway with their dreadlocks and their cans of beer, but they were not friendly and would often look the other way or shout at me and behave like drunken people.
Against this bleak backdrop, Solomon’s fate comes to seem almost merciful. Dorothy isn’t so lucky.
With its gloomy outlook and its heavy-footed prose, A Distant Shore is a difficult read. In Phillips’s version of multi-ethnic Britain, every man is an island, and doomed to remain one. The novel offers a worst-case scenario of the devastating effects of migration and the breakdown of tradition. It’s a grim, unblinking vision of the modern world.