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A Distant Shore

Caryl Phillips

Knopf, 277 pages, $35.95

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Writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera regularly argue that the novel is a genre fundamentally concerned with the self. In both their novels and their essays, Rushdie and Kundera repeatedly posit the novel as a form in which individual identity can be measured. The post-colonial novel in particular, Rushdie suggests, locates these generic inquiries into how identity is formed with the migrant. British writer Caryl Phillips's new novel, A Distant Shore, fights bravely and successfully for admission into the growing canon of the post-colonial novel by cross-testing our disapproval of violence with our sympathy for survival and flight.

To its credit, A Distant Shore also charges the reviewer with The Crying Game challenge: how to fairly review an admirably unpredictable plot whose accomplishment demands respectful silence? The novel opens with ex-teacher Dorothy Jones's attempt to manage multiple deaths and an unanticipated early retirement by moving to a new subdivision in a remote village of northern England. Where her attempt to start a new life in a new place has taken her hundreds of kilometres, her African neighbour Solomon's has taken him thousands, and while physical proximity does make them neighbours, class (he's the subdivision's night watchmen and lives in a converted workshop), race, gender and age may prevent the villagers from accepting them as friends.

For Solomon, of course, this bigotry is but the latest particularization of one of life's constants, and his untimely departure from the village is the novel's occasion to chart his complex journey from civil war in Africa to a remote English village.

Structurally, Phillips, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1993 for Crossing the River and longlisted in August for this book, makes numerous bold gambles, and all but one reward the reader handsomely. Dorothy's story, located primarily in the opening and closing sections, is narrated by her, while Solomon's is narrated omnisciently. Phillips, author of six novels (including The Final Passage), much drama and three books of non-fiction, has no trouble distinguishing these two voices, and actually sets himself the additional challenge of testing Dorothy's narration through a series of confessed or imposed questions of reliability. (Don't worry, the stuffy, haughty tone of the opening is purposefully undone.)

For Solomon's story, the shift to third-person narration meets the additional challenge of constant intercutting (between African civil war and detention in England). In clumsier hands, the constancy of these cuts could easily seem contrived or manipulative, but Phillips eases their passage with judicious squirts of Dostoyevskyian morality. Like Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, A Distant Shore demands both sympathy and empathy of a reader no doubt quick to understand the theoretical imperatives of survival, but equally troubled by their specific realization.

Pace is surely the novel's largest gamble, and its most lucrative. At slightly less than one-quarter into the novel, Solomon unequivocally earns the reader's sympathy. A narrative disguise, though, will question that sympathy entirely, and thereby enable the novel's thoughtful interrogations of justice and morality. In an unnamed war-torn African country, when the teenaged government soldiers are drunk and the mismatched rebel soldiers are high, when hell shifts from the abstract to the quotidian, Phillips's characters and readers must ask whether morality and identity are as relative as contemporary nationality. If we can bribe and steal our way into a new country without the official taxes of immigration, can we bribe and steal our way into a new self without the taxes of memory and morality?

While A Distant Shore does cut smoothly and fruitfully between past and present, passage between its two principal characters is neither as successful nor as rewarding. Phillips attempts to mirror the migrations of Dorothy and Solomon, moving each through the resultant inclusions, exclusions and delusions of community acceptance or rejection, yet hers lack the animated morality of his.

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The scale is simply incommensurate. Her family grudges and endured or incited village infidelities can't compete with the blood on Solomon's hands, especially given the novel's unwise, unfruitful ending. The passivity and isolation of the ending are gratuitously despairing. Clearly argued here is the suggestion that honest, rewarding community is impossible. Such a message is by no means inappropriate or even unwelcome, especially today; narratively, however, it is unearned.

A Distant Shore is a good meal unjustly threatened by a less successful dessert. Superb ingredients are artfully combined throughout, always with our maximum health in mind. Although the final taste is the least impressive, we are undoubtedly nourished and enriched.

Darryl Whetter teaches English and creative writing at the University of Windsor. No Friend of Time, his book of stories, was one of the 2003 Globe 100.

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