‘Cambridge’ by Caryl Phillips


1991, 184 p.

A funny thing happened while I was reading this book.  I’m in the habit of reading in bed before I go to sleep, but I never read ‘work’ (i.e. thesis) books that I think I might need to really concentrate on.  Novels, yes; diaries, yes; arcane books from Google books yes.  Occasionally I find something in these books that I might jot down, but it’s all pretty low key.

So here I was, reading Cambridge by Caryl Phillips.  I’d heard about it on one of the lists that I subscribe to,  in response to a question regarding novels set on Caribbean sugar plantations. It is, indeed, set in the West Indies.  Now, I’ve read quite a few books about the West Indies by now for my thesis,  including travel books to the West Indies as in Mrs Carmichael’s jolly tracts review here and here, and diaries.  The first section of Cambridge is told from the perspective  of a young Englishwoman sent out to check on her father’s plantation before returning home to marry an older man her father had chosen for her.  So utterly convinced was I by the narrative voice  that I picked up a pen ready to make a note until I thought- hold on: it’s fiction.

The first section, told in the first person by Emily Cartwright is written as a journal-type narrative (although not divided by dates or other chronological markers) and in the immediate past tense.  When Emily arrives at an unnamed West Indian island, at an unspecified time (somewhere between 1807 and 1834) she finds that the manager, Mr Wilson, has disappeared and been replaced by Mr Brown.   Mr Brown is a surly, uncouth man but Emily falls in love with him gradually, and all of a sudden he is no longer ‘Mr Brown’ but Arnold.  Emily is troubled by Mr Brown’s black mistress, a woman called Christiane, whom all the other slaves fear to be an obeah (witch) woman.  Cambridge, a large well-built negro worker, is set to keep watch over her at night.  The first part of the book is by far the longest – 122 of the book’s 184 p.  It is told at a leisurely pace- hence, I think, my being lulled into thinking of it as an authentic diary, and it shares the one-dimension perspective of the diary genre.

The second section is told by Cambridge- a slave whose travels have taken him on his own Atlantic triangle- Africa, England, West Indies.  He is a man of many identities and many names- Cambridge,  David Henderson, Olumide. His voice is the formal, stilted witness of the evangelical convert, and he retells many of the same events as Emily does, but brings another truth to them.

In an interview with the New York Times, Caryl Phillips said:

To begin a book I must first find characters who allow me access to their lives and who trust me to tell their stories….I began by reading period novels. That wasn’t enough, so I turned to diaries and collections of letters. I found that a considerable number of personal narratives existed, written by English travelers to the Caribbean. All of that helped me to understand the language of the period, the attitudes that it shaped and reflected and the subtlety of statement common to the period.

I think that it was this capturing of nuance so authentically  that I responded to: so much so that I was disappointed by a third short narrative, in the form of a newspaper story, that somehow missed the mark.  It starts as a report such as you might find in the ‘criminal’ section of a colonial newspaper, but it then segues into the florid prose of a story-telling also common to the colonial press of the time,  complete with improving verses and sunrises and sunsets.  But in reality, you’d find these two separate sorts of writing in different parts of the newspaper as two completely different articles.   For something that had felt so authentic up to this point, this was disappointing.

This is the third  Caryl Phillips book I have read: I reviewed his Crossing the River  and Dancing in the Dark some time back.  Both Crossing the River  and Cambridge are similar with their multiple narrators, but I think that this book has a much better unity.  It is a pastiche, of course, but a very well researched one (and I know this because I’ve read the same primary sources!) that wears the research lightly.

I suspect from the rather dismissive reviews on Google that it has been assigned as school reading.  I acknowledge that the first part is very slow, and events unfurl as they do in life.  It’s a much more complex book than these disgruntled young readers realize. It also supports an academic response as well, all steeped in postcolonial theory (see here and here and here as well) .

My rating: 9/10

Read because: It was suggested on a list of fiction works addressing plantation life

Sourced from: The Annexe at La Trobe University.  Obviously not enough people borrowed it.  They should.

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