‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

1993, 237 p.

This is a very post-modern novel of the African diaspora, written by a West Indian author, raised in England. There are multiple narratives, bookended by an opening lament of a father forced to sell his children into slavery in Africa, and closed by a lament about diaspora and dispossession which ties together the four stories in between.

The four stories are those of the sold children, but untethered in time and place.  The first voice is that of a slave liberated by his master to move to Liberia, writing letters back to his master. The letters are unanswered, and he is unaware that his master is travelling to Liberia to meet him.  The narrative shifts between an epistolatory form, and the ‘straight’ narrative of the master’s journey from America to Liberia in search of his former slave.

The second voice is that of Martha, the second sold child, an old Negro woman, travelling for the West Coast in the post civil-war era.  She is abandoned because she is too old and slow.

The third voice comes through the journal of the slave trader, moored off the African coast for an inordinate amount of time while he collects more cargo. He reports on the deaths and escapes of his cargo as the boat waits in humid waters until there are sufficient bodies for the trip to be profitable.  The author captures the tone of the journal well, couched in the language of late 18th century piety and commercialism, and it is chilling in its banality at times.

Finally, the fourth story is a long one, taking up about one third of the book.  This voice belongs to Joyce, the white wife of a man arrested for black market activities during WWII who starts up a relationship with a black GI, who represents the third ‘sold’ child.  This section is told in very short (1-2 page) discontinuous entries; weaving back and forth over the war years.

So- the three sold children, but told at different jumps in the unfolding history and in different countries (Liberia, US, UK), and interwoven with the stories of the grief-striken African father, the slave-trader, and an omniscient narrator intoning rather academically on diaspora as a phenomenon.  I really wondered how the author was going to carry this off- how on earth was he going to draw all these disparate bits into a whole? But he did, deftly, cleverly and succinctly in the last few pages.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I feel deep admiration for the sheer virtuoisity and intent of the book, but I found myself rather distanced from the stories: it was almost as if the technical cleverness of the author’s intention and execution overshadowed the human aspects.  And yet, even as I write this, I wonder if this is what the author intended all along.

One response to “‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

  1. Pingback: ‘Cambridge’ by Caryl Phillips | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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