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 a journey to find that Solomon has been murdered, his body found floating and battered in the nearby canal. Discovering who did it is surprisingly simple; one of Dorothy’s music pupils saw her boyfriend and his mates kill Solomon with boots and bricks. The murder of one of the main characters is an ending of sorts, and so is the impact of the murder on the other: Dorothy now slides away into deepening paranoid delusions. But it is only when this climax has been recounted that A Distant Shore settles down to explore its antecedents, cunningly uncovering the lives that went before the death and the madness.
Gabriel, who will become Solomon, begins as a modest messenger clerk in the capital of some West African state: it might be Sierra Leone or Liberia. Urged on by his father, he travels into the bush to join a tribal rebellion, and finds a talent for soldiering. As “Brigadier Hawk,” he fights relatively cleanly until the day when his men run wild and massacre the inhabitants of an innocent village. Gabriel returns home in disgust, only to find the army in the capital engaged in a pogrom against all the members of his rebel tribe. Hidden in a cupboard, he watches the soldiers murder and rape his own family.
Now begins the tale of his escape to Europe. Desperate to find the money for an illegal flight, he murders—in a Dostoevskean scene—a friendly old shopkeeper and robs his cashbox. There is a long road journey in a crammed truck, a flight in a darkened freight aircraft to some small, lawless corner of the Balkans, a voyage across water, a train journey to Paris, a walk across fields to a camp near the French mouth of the Channel Tunnel. After clinging to the hull of a ferry, Gabriel and a companion leap into the sea as the ship nears Dover and stumble ashore.
A new phase of his life now opens, as a destitute illegal immigrant. Caryl Phillips leads him like a sort of twenty-first-century Candide through encounters with the mystifying, unpredictable British. A schoolgirl finds him hiding in an empty house near the shore and brings him food. Then her father arrives with the police, yelling accusations of child rape, and Gabriel finds himself in a cell awaiting trial. From there he is rescued by Katherine, a young woman who counsels immigrants about their rights. She wins him the grant of asylum on grounds of political persecution, and the rape charges are dropped. Homeless on the streets of London, he is rescued again by Katherine, who advises him to change his name and shows him how to hitchhike toward the north of England.
Like Candide, he meets saints as well as fiends, recklessly kind people as well as bullying racists. Phillips is too adept a storyteller, and too honest a witness, to repeat the conventional tale of the unrelieved hostility of the English to foreign immigrants, especially black ones. The schoolgirl and Katherine have already done their best for him. And on the rainy motorway, “Solomon” gets his first lift from a hospitable trucker named Mike, who takes him to the old married couple who run his lodgings. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson care for Solomon, help him to get a work permit, and organize craft training for him until he is ready to set up on his own as a skilled plumber and carpenter. When Mike dies, killed in a highway accident, Solomon inherits his car—the green one which he polishes so carefully—and finds a job as caretaker in the housing development next to Dorothy’s little house.
His life has at least been eventful. Dorothy’s, set against the background of a sullen, declining working-class England, is a matter of small expectations growing smaller. Dad, the source of family authority, spends his life down on the family’s allotment—the small piece of land provided to residents of public housing for gardening—grumbling about “colored” immigrants and the decline of English greatness. Dorothy finds a talent for music and goes to a university. There she is visited suddenly by her younger sister, Sheila, Dad’s favorite, who announces that she is running away to London. Dorothy does not want to hear why, but she has to listen; it is because of what Dad has been doing to Sheila for years in the allotment shed. And at this awful moment, it is not anger that the shattered Dorothy feels. “Underneath it all the real question that I wanted answered was how come I escaped his attention? Did he love her more than me?”
This is Dorothy’s first experience of abandonment. But many more will follow. She marries a dreary fellow called Brian, who after years of mutual boredom dumps her for a girl from the office and goes off to run a bed-and-breakfast in Spain. Soon she is swapping glances with a handsome Indian who runs the local newspaper shop, and an affair begins, passionate at first but soon a matter of routine (Thursdays at 7: a quick curry together, then bed, then Mahmood’s escape as quickly as he can decently manage it).
Mahmood, a man of unfulfilled ambition and ironic intelligence, is much the most vivid secondary character in the novel. Nothing in his life turns out as he meant it to, not even Dorothy. Unknown to her, he fathers a baby with his wife, Feroza, and Dorothy’s sudden encounter with the baby in the shop brings their relationship to an end. But it also brings Dorothy’s long-suppressed desperation to a head, and that day she finds herself stumbling over words, forgetting where she is, as she tries to teach her music class.
From then on, she is falling apart. It is a sinister, stepwise process of which she herself is often unaware, but which Caryl Phillips lets the reader gradually discover across the maze-like structure of the book. We read about Dorothy’s journeys to visit Mum and Dad, because she needs to talk to them, long before we are told that this is a visit to their graves.
As soon as Mahmood has rejected her, Dorothy sets out to fascinate a new geography teacher who has just arrived at her school. He has graying temples and “rather awkwardly knitted hands,” and “the biggest give-away is the briefcase, which is emaciated and concave as though eager to be nourished with badly written papers.” Geoff Waverley, like Mahmood, is an example of Phillips’s skill with appealing, irresolute characters who pretend to themselves that they might break away and launch out on a new life. His wife is having an affair with a squash professional, and Dorothy seduces Geoff for a night without too much difficulty. But he doesn’t come back for more. He avoids her, and her notes in his school pigeonhole go unanswered. Yet another abandonment is approaching, but this time Dorothy is too ill, too dissociated from reality, to accept it. She begins to stalk Geoff, and makes the mistake of calling up his wife for a little talk about her husband’s behavior. It all ends in predictable disaster, as Geoff makes a formal complaint of harassment against her to the school authorities; Dorothy is suspended and eventually persuaded to take early retirement.
One more round of rejection waits for her, before Dorothy’s life finally converges with Solomon’s in that new housing development where a black caretaker is outside polishing a green car. After losing her job, she goes to visit Sheila in London—the first contact with her sister for many years. Sheila, it turns out, has terminal lung cancer. Years ago, she left her partner, a filmmaker, to live with a woman named Maria, but Maria has now in turn forsaken her. She is facing death on her own. Dorothy, finding that for once in her life she is genuinely needed, moves in and cares for her sister through her final weeks.
And yet even now, in an interval of relative sanity, she grows aware that it is not just individuals but her whole country, England, which is abandoning her, becoming an unrecognizable place in which children have no respect for teachers, thieves and muggers strut about unpunished, dogs foul the pavement, and everyone is driven to behave in ways they feel ashamed of. “England has changed,” the first page of the novel begins. “These days it’s difficult to tell who’s from around here and who’s not. Who belongs and who’s a stranger.” Derek, who has been Sheila’s best friend in London, comes to confess that Maria is now living with him. Writhing with embarrassment, he begs to be allowed upstairs to see the dying Sheila, but Dorothy throws him out of the house. And Dorothy herself lives with the shame of how she failed to help her sister all those years ago, when she came to tell her about their father and begged for love and understanding.
In the coda of the novel, Dorothy—to outward appearances demented and confused—lies dwindling away in a hospital ward. Her doctor comes to see her, hoping that she will become well enough to go home and be looked after by “care in the community.” This was the title of Britain’s notorious campaign to empty its old mental hospitals, which too often ejected confused patients into an isolation that could end in suicide or death by neglect. Caryl Phillips is using the slogan for irony, to evoke the bitter world without either care or community which Dorothy perceives around her. She pays no attention to the doctor. Her former husband, Brian, appears (shabby, overweight, nervous, another accomplished item in Phillips’s gallery of ineffectual males) and tries to touch her with a pleading hand. She begins to shout, then to struggle. Nurses come running and hold her down as Brian backs off and runs for the door. And yet, in spite of her rejection of all that comes to her from the world outside, a core of lucidity remains. Dorothy lies on her bed, staring at the shadows of trees across the ceiling, and considers her life. “My heart remains a desert, but I tried. I had a feeling that Solomon understood me. This is not my home, and until they accept this, then I will be as purposefully silent as a bird in flight.”
Passages like that show Caryl Phillips’s writing at its best: economic, vigilant, evocative. Much of the novel’s current is flowing through the narrows of those few dialogue sentences, which convey the image of two people who have lost their homes and who have spent the rest of their lives fleeing as they seek a new place of refuge, an asylum in both senses of the word. But Phillips’s gift for character and his elaborate craftsmanship with narrative form are not always in use, and in other passages he can overwrite to the point of clumsiness. Here he is describing a pub interior, the first scene in Dorothy’s humiliating campaign to entrap the schoolteacher Geoff Waverley:
The place is populated with after-work couples, the men with slightly loosened ties, and the women pull- ing nervously on cigarettes and speaking with an animation that no doubt eludes them when they are in the office. And then there are the regulars; old men with dun-coloured jackets nursing their solitary pints of beer, and middle-aged women with pinched faces and sugar-sabotaged teeth, who slump in their seats and wait in the dull hope that something approximating to love might once again show itself.
It takes a careful reading of this paragraph to see that it is in fact not the author but Dorothy, staring around the pub as she waits for Geoff to buy the first round, who is imagining “the dull hope [for] something approximating to love” behind the faces of other women. It’s easy to understand what effect Phillips is trying to create in this scene, and why, but the way it is done seems contrived.
A Distant Shore could have been two stories. One would have been Gabriel/Solomon’s tale of war, flight, and the search for refuge in an alien culture. The other is the story of a quieter flight, the destruction of a respectable woman whose own family and country—as she has honored and remembered them—gradually recede into an impossibly “distant shore,” separated from the present by an ocean of treachery and vileness. There is no obvious connection between a refugee risking his life to reach a cold country that does not want him and a middle-aged English schoolteacher wondering why nobody wants her. But Caryl Phillips has imagined the subtle ways in which Solomon and Dorothy are brought to recognize each other.
It is not just the “distant shore,” the sense of internal or external exile that they share. It is also guilt before the accusing dead. Both have fearsome dreams and delusions about their parents, who warn them of danger (Solomon) or sneer at them from the grave (Dorothy). Above all, though, the two share the need for a language in which to speak about themselves to another person with the confidence that they will be heard and understood. Solomon begins to feel that he will be able to talk to Dorothy about his African past, about his part in an atrocious war and about the shopkeeper’s murder, which weighs on his conscience. Dorothy begins to realize that a bond of trust is growing between her and this “coloured man” who wants her to talk openly about her own abject, disappointed life: “I had a feeling that Solomon understood me.” Sadness pervades this perceptive novel because the reader knows, after the first forty pages, that this language will never be spoken.