IN MAY 1753, on the West Coast of Africa, a man sells his three children to an English slaver: 'The crops failed. I sold my children. I remember.' He is still there today, waiting and listening, a guilty father: 'For 250 years I have waited patiently for the wind to rise on the far bank of the river. For the drum to pound across the water. For the chorus to swell. Only then, if I listen closely, can I rediscover my lost children.'
Gradually he assumes paternity of the whole African diaspora. The 'chorus of common memory' now returns to him in a great Western arc from Rio to Stockholm. To cross the river is to leave Africa, and the river crossed flows from the real into the symbolic world, a river of tears, the River Jordan, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mississippi.
Caryl Phillips follows three of these 'children' in separate stories. Nash Williams, in 'The Pagan Coast', returns (or is returned) to Liberia in the 1830s, an educated Christian, born in America, favoured and liberated by his owner, chosen by the American Colonisation Society to carry its religion and civilisation into Africa. He struggles and declines, his fine-sprung letters to his former master unheeded or undelivered.
'West' is about Martha, American by birth, life and death. She suffers through most of the 19th century, worked and beaten in the cotton fields, deprived of her husband and child when the three of them are auctioned separately after their master's death. She abandons her new 'Christian' owners, and gains her legal freedom when 'the Union topples' (Phillips must mean the Confederacy). Late in life, dreaming of reunion with her daughter, she joins a group of black pioneers headed for California. Her health fails, she is forced to leave the wagon train and freezes to death in Colorado.
Travis, in 'Somewhere in England', is a GI stationed in Yorkshire during the Second World War. His story is told by Joyce, an abrupt, touching local white Englishwoman whom he meets and courts. He leaves for the front, she finds she is pregnant. They marry on New Year's Day 1945, during 72 hours' compassionate leave. Soon afterwards he is killed in action on the Italian coast (it is surely too late in the war for this). Joyce is 'sensible' and their son is taken into the care of the county council as an orphan. In 1963 he is given his mother's name and address (again this is historically implausible) and walks up her garden path, 18 years old, another generation away from Africa: 'My God, he was handsome.'
In the fourth and title story, Phillips draws on John Newton's Journal of a Slave Trader (1750- 54). He invents a diary for James Hamilton, the man to whom the three children were originally sold in 1753. Captain Hamilton carries out his business efficiently, in spite of feelings of revulsion. He is ruthless when he judges it necessary, like the grieving, nameless, African father. They stand together as the emblematic initiators of this vast mutating history, and it is the father who closes the book, still listening for his children, the scope of his paternity still widening, listening for 'my Joyce, and my other children, their voices hurt but determined . . . my Nash, my Martha, my Travis'. His sorrow and his guilt shift into admiration as 'the many-tongued chorus continues to swell' across the river. He cannot resist his sense of the grandeur of his children's history. It seems an appropriate emotion, although some may mistake it for sentimentality or 'false consciousness'.
Crossing the River is dense with event and ingeniously structured. It requires concentration and is worth it. Its most characteristic and effective device is similar to that employed by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day: crucial information is introduced in oblique fashion, or revealed late in the story, so that earlier oddities suddenly acquire sense, the moral pitch is altered and the reader is tipped into reinterpretation.
The writing varies with the century and is for the most part detached and highly accomplished. It is strangest in 'The Pagan Coast'. The convincing rhythms of the letters written by Nash Williams contrast strongly with the historically unbelievable surrounding prose, which seems to have been worked out of true in order to convey the neurosis of Williams's master. Reading it is like listening to Mozart vaguely subverted by jazz, but the effect is good. The unreliable language thickens the deep unease of the story.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies