Forbidden Knowledge

Caryl Phillips
Caryl Phillips; drawing by David Levine

The middle-aged woman looks out of the window of her new house. She is a music teacher, recently obliged to accept “early retirement.” The little house stands in a new housing development, on the fringes of a dreary post-industrial village in northern England. Dorothy is alone when she looks out of the window; she has nothing particular to do with her life except to go for checkups of her sometimes troubled mental condition. Outside the next house, the caretaker’s bungalow, she sees a “somewhat undernourished coloured man” cleaning a car. He cleans it

with a concentration that suggests a difficult life is informing the circular motion of his right hand. His every movement would appear to be an attempt to erase a past that he no longer wishes to be reminded of. She looks at him, and she understands.

On Dorothy’s mantelpiece there is a letter from her younger sister, Sheila, which she has not opened yet. But her sister died several years ago, and Dorothy has written the letter to herself.

Beginning a summary of A Distant Shore in this way is already slighting its structure, which is very elaborate. Dorothy’s sight of the undernourished man is placed near the outset of the novel. But her thoughts about how his hand movements suggest the scrubbing away of memories come, in contrast, near the end of the book, at a point when the reader has learned almost every detail of the man’s past. In fact, the “washing” image suggests a related metaphor that can help to illustrate the way Caryl Phillips works as a novelist: the slow, side-to-side movement of a cleaning cloth across a dusty mosaic, a process in which each stroke reveals with new details and patterns only glimpsed, half understood, or entirely missed earlier.

There are two interleaved narratives: that of Dorothy and that of the African caretaker (who has taken the name of Solomon after a previous African existence as Gabriel). But each section of the two narratives is followed, not always at once, by a succession of steadily extending flashbacks which fill in gaps, give fresh significance to what’s already known, or add entirely new elements to the story. As Phillips intends, this technique charges the whole novel with an awareness of forbidden knowledge, with a sense of reluctance to divulge or acknowledge buried pasts—with a very effective suspense, in fact. But it’s a structure that demands watchful reading, and there are moments—especially with the increasingly confused Dorothy—when the sequence of events and journeys can become baffling.

The novel’s climactic event is placed near the beginning rather than toward the end. Dorothy is befriended by Solomon, who drives her to and from the medical center. He grows confident enough to show her some of the racist hate-mail which he is beginning to receive from local residents—her other neighbors. Then, one day, she returns from…

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