Caryl Phillips has been cited as one of the literary giants of our time. He has written six novels before this one, as well as essays, scripts and plays. In 1993, he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He's a stalwart of black British writing, and his depictions of colonial history are among the most astute and compassionate in modern fiction. In the face of all this, it's difficult not to think of his new novel as something of a let-down.
A Distant Shore is about two people and two very different lives. Dorothy is an English middle-aged divorcee, just out of an affair with a married man, and bereaved by the death of her sister. She's lonely, unhappy, a little desperate. Solomon, an African man who works as nightwatchman in the housing complex where they both live in rural England, is someone else. He's a once illegal, now legal immigrant who fled his country after witnessing the massacre of his family. Dorothy and Solomon become strange friends, shortly before Solomon is drowned in the canal by a gang of white racists.
Solomon, whose real name is Gabriel, was a soldier in his country's liberation army against government troops. Halfway through the book, it becomes somewhat irritating that Phillips does not tell us which country or even which part of Africa Gabriel is fleeing. It seems important (at least to invent a name, suggest a region), not only to make the scenes of brutality and the sense of loss that Gabriel feels more convincing, but also to avoid making generalisations about Africa . It's a continent, not a country.
This is not to say that Phillips's portrayal of Gabriel's escape is not suspenseful, atmospheric, adventurous. It is. He travels by truck, by train and hangs off the side of a ship, in the dark, to a distant English shore. There is an arresting scene on a bridge in France where Gabriel's beautiful companion Amma gets ready to jump on to a moving train, with a child in her arms. It's also a cleverly structured novel, flitting between viewpoints, making smooth jumps in time and place with an expert grasp of pace.
But Phillips's prose style lacks edge. Aside from moments of beauty of language, and also comedy, particularly in Dorothy's sections, much of the time it's bland and monotonous. Some of the dialogue during scenes featuring walk-on characters, such as Gabriel's lawyer (he's accused of having sex with an underage girl who finds him in the cottage and brings him fish and chips), comes across as wooden. There are careless repetitions and tiresome clichés (Amma's "large almond eyes"), and too few of the moments of poignancy that often shine out from novels written in this modest, quiet style, where the silence between the lines allows room for the profound to ring out.
For readers with an interest in language, A Distant Shore will lack clout or resonance. But as for the notion of writers acting as commentators on issues surrounding us, a novel exploring migration, asylum, home and loneliness could not have come at a better time.
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