Caryl Phillips
A Distant Shore
New York: Random House, 2003. Pp. 274. $23.95

Reviewed by Charles Sarvan

The novel's title invites different readings: for example, that one is cast up on a far and strange shore, alienated and lonely; that peace and happiness are located beyond reach and realization; or the realization that one has not arrived and the last boat has sailed away. The focus is on two characters: Dorothy Jones, aged fifty-five, a music teacher from England who is pressured by the school authorities into taking early retirement, isolated and lonely; and Solomon, aged thirty, a lonely and insecure foreigner, an asylum seeker from an unnamed African country where an appallingly cruel inter-tribal war rages. The lives of these two individuals, vulnerable because they have been hurt by "the vile blows and buffets of the world" — to cite Macbeth — briefly and tentatively incline toward each other, but are separated, brutally for the one, and tragically for the other: Solomon is kidnapped, beaten, and dumped in a canal where he drowns; Dorothy suffers a breakdown and goes into a "home."

The work is divided into five parts, each alternately telling fragments of Dorothy's life and that of Gabriel, the latter now passing himself off under another biblical name, Solomon. If "narrator" implies narratee, then Dorothy's is not a first-person narrative; rather, it is the monologue of the inner speech of a mind in free (desultory) association. Abandoned by her husband, coarsely made use of by her lover, looked at with askance by others, Dorothy reaches out for human companionship but in her desperation misjudges others and soon finds it harder and harder to cope with life. The story is situated within a wandering, at times irrational, mind and consists of fragments of a tale told associatively rather than chronologically or logically; the reader therefore finds it difficult to navigate and to separate past from present, truth from fiction. In Freudian terms, Dorothy's depression is narcissistic in that she becomes increasingly self-preoccupied and withdraws from relationships with others. Often, it is through the reaction of these others-surprise, concern, ridicule, contempt, a charge of sexual harassment-that we realize matters are not as Dorothy sees them. In telling Solomon's story, the technique employed is one associated with the cinema, "cutting" and juxtaposing his past with his present predicament in Britain.

The England of the novel (we remind ourselves that it is no more than the perspective of two characters) is one of stagnation and decline. The coalmines have been shut down, and fragile Dorothy finds the homeless-unkempt and uncouth, bitter and aggressive-intimidating. Visiting a council flat, she encounters worn-out grass, filth strewn everywhere, a cracked and peeling outdoor swimming pool, and a stinking urine-stained staircase (233). The young screech and bray, are raucous and riotous, violent and casually cruel, bent on making an exhibition of themselves, as devoid of restraint as of any consideration for others. The crude and ugly racism Solomon encounters in England can be more precisely described as "colorism." Because of the color of his skin, Solomon is ostracized, receives hate mail mixed with razor blades, and has excreta pushed through his mailbox. On the road, he is scrupulously ignored, suffers verbal abuse, and, finally, a fatal beating. However, this is not a feature peculiar to Britain. There is horrifying violence back home in Africa, violence which Solomon not only witnesses but contributes to, both as a soldier and, later, in killing "his elderly friend" (81) who tries to help him escape. And in England, Solomon is rebuffed not only by the "Whites" but also by the West Indians and the Asians (259).

A perception basic to Caryl Phillips's work is that "Hell is us," that it is human beings who make this life and the world in which we live a hell or a heaven. Nor is the author's attitude one of resignation. As has been observed, rather than accepting and blaming basic human nature for what it is, we must strive to overcome, alter, and improve it. A Distant Shore is not a work of unrelieved violence and gloom, and there are gleams of decency and care and, therefore, also of hope. Katherine, the lawyer, aids Solomon with quiet courage and determination; Mike, the long-distance lorry driver, befriends him; Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, who run the boarding house where Solomon stays, are kind and helpful.

As the novel suggests, abandonment and alienation, loneliness and pain, are not uncommon to the human condition, and, unlike Dorothy, we must try to see ourselves in a wider context (208). Had there been "world enough and time," a different world and different times, Dorothy and Solomon would have entered into a healing, strengthening, happiness-making friendship: "some bring out the good in you and open you up, others close you down and make you quiet" (12). The reader is left confronting violence, prejudice, and unkindness; left confronting waste that is all the more tragic because it is man-made and so unnecessary: the pity of it; the pity of it all, and yet, too, the hope.