Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 38.
- Review Date: 2007-09-10
- Reviewer: Staff
SignatureReviewed by Kate ChristensenAlong with interest and admiration, I read parts of Caryl Phillips’s new book, Foreigners, with, I confess, a mixture of bemused perplexity and thwarted expectations, wondering, what is this guy up to here? The rather stodgy historical passages coexist somewhat uneasily with the more fluid and lyrical fictionalized accounts. The three sections rub up against each other with a fierce but not quite cohesive energy. But in the end, the book is a bleakly ironic examination of what it means to be Other—historically and socially—through the stories of three very different black men in England.The first section, “Doctor Johnson’s Watch,” is narrated by a late–18th-century journalist who sets out to write a piece for a gentleman’s magazine about Francis Barber, the Jamaican boy who was “given” in the early 1750s to Dr. Samuel Johnson, of the famous Dictionary. Dr. Johnson raised the “negro” as his ward until his death; he gave him his freedom and a generous pension, which Barber squandered. At the end of the narrative, Barber, lying on the verge of death in a squalid pauper’s hospital, offers poignant insight into the nature of freedom and otherness, insight that the journalist, despite good intentions, may not be prepared to receive.The second section, “Made in Wales,” is narrated in a hard-boiled third person that traces the rise and fall of Randy Turpin, the mixed-race boxer who beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1951 to become, briefly, middleweight champion of the world, then fell, inevitably, the narrative suggests, into hapless debt and ruin. The third, final, most riveting and beautifully written section, “Northern Lights,” is told by a chorus of voices who cobble together the mysterious life and death of David Oluwale, a 20th-century version of Bartleby, a stowaway from Nigeria who washes up in Leeds in 1949 and ends his life stubbornly homeless, willfully persecuted and in 1969, drowned.Interestingly, Phillips goes into none of these three black men’s consciousnesses or psyches. The reader stands some distance away from them with the narrators; except for Barber’s piercing, frank lament, we don’t get any direct emotional information from any of them. This narrative strategy is essential to the book’s intent, as is, I suspect, the uneasiness it provoked in me along the way. Phillips gets at real-life complexities in a visceral, nondidactic way: there are no victims or heroes here. I finished the book hearing Melville’s “Ah humanity!” echoing back through its pages.Kate Christensen’s fourth novel, The Great Man , was published last month by Doubleday.
Three ordinary lives
From novelist and playwright Caryl Phillips, an acclaimed voice on identity and race, comes another historical exploration, one that easily lands among his most timely and important work. The author of such works as Dancing in the Dark and A Distant Shore blends fiction and fact in his new novel Foreigners to tell the stories of three black men in Britain, whose struggles are both stirring and deeply human.
The West Indian-born Francis Barber, manservant of literary great Samuel Johnson, never quite finds social and financial success in 19th-century Britain, despite the apparent advantages bestowed on him by his benefactor. More than a century later, Randolph Turpin defeats Sugar Ray Robinson to take the world middleweight boxing title. But his constant battles with fans, foes and himself slowly wear him down and eventually lead to his ruin. Not so far away, in Leeds, David Oluwale arrives from Nigeria, determined to succeed. But a stint in jail and another in a mental institution chip away at his resolve and faith in people, and he finds himself living on the street. When two officers are convicted in his death, his name becomes a rallying point in the fight against police brutality and racist policing.
The three men's stories are sketched in mixed media: one minute Phillips is a journalist; the next, a novelist with a unique gift for voice; the next, a historian. Varying angles and points of view describe the visible and invisible, internal and external forces that assail his subjects. The result is not an exposition, but a detailed portrait from which to draw conclusions, an invitation to examine societal perceptions about modern belonging and a warning that all may not be as it seems.
Phillips, whose family emigrated to Leeds, England, from St. Kitts when he was an infant, describes later photographs of Randolph Turpin as showing "a man who has visibly aged and whose face is tramlined with streaks of worry." And while Turpin, Barber and Oluwale are very different men, one imagines their faces bear similarities: lines of weariness and desperation, and the injuries one incurs from running into walls.
Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.