NYT reviews ‘The Lost Child,’ by Caryl Phillips


A review by Jeffery Renard Allen for The New York Times.

At age 57, Caryl Phillips is seen by many as the father of Afro-British fiction. Phillips was born on the island of St. Kitts in 1958, but as an infant he left with his parents during the mass migration of people from the Caribbean islands — still colonial subjects ­­— to Britain in the 1950s. Immigration has been a key topic in Phillips’s work from his very first novel, “The Final Passage” (1985). His first two novels were fairly straightforward in style and structure, but with his third, “Higher Ground” (1989), Phillips introduced the more ambitious and unconventional approach he has used ever since. Rather than tell one linear story, these later novels bring together several independent narratives set at different places on the globe and at different moments in time. The stories are linked by theme and situation as opposed to setting and plot.

Phillips adopts this method again in his new novel, “The Lost Child,” which might best be defined as a riff on “Wuthering Heights.” The book opens and closes by imagining young Heathcliff’s life before Mr. Earnshaw brings the orphan to his estate in the moors of northern England. The early pages give us a horrifying depiction of poverty, prostitution, and mental and physical deterioration through the eyes of Heathcliff’s mother, while the final pages depict Heathcliff’s life as an orphan. At the heart of Phillips’s book is the widespread (and continuing) abuse of women and children, and he writes sympathetically and powerfully about both.

Two additional stories are sandwiched inside the Heathcliff narrative. One is told through the consciousness of Emily Brontë as she suffers through her last days. Here the delirious Brontë confuses the details of her novel “Wuthering Heights” with her life at home with her father and two sisters. Phillips suggests that Emily’s mental decline has as much to do with her father as it does with tuberculosis, for we see a father who values his only son, Branwell, more than he does his three daughters, so much so that at one point he tries to turn Emily into Branwell’s substitute by teaching her how to shoot a pistol.

The other story begins in the late 1950s and focuses on Monica Johnson, a university student and would-be writer who falls in love with a fellow student, Julius, a black man from an unnamed British colony. Monica marries Julius against her parents’ wishes, and they shun her. From there, her life steadily deteriorates. The self-absorbed Julius returns to his homeland to teach (and in his mind to take part in the independence movement), leaving Monica to raise their two young sons. But Monica — like Heathcliff’s mother, and like the feverish Brontë — starts to go mad, until eventually she can no longer properly care for her boys.

In a perceptive 1997 essay published in The New York Review of Books, J. M. Coetzee argued that Phillips’s body of work had “a single aim: remembering what the West would like to forget.” By layering Monica’s story with those of Heathcliff and Brontë, Phillips poetically suggests that women (and often enough their helpless children) are society’s unwanted outcasts, victims of a patriarchal system that oppresses them as wantonly and unthinkingly as a colonial power oppresses its territories. But he also offers a path out. Emboldened by the countercultural ideas expressed in British rock music of the early to mid-1970s, Monica’s older son is able to push past his troubles and head off to college. Phillips’s point is clear: To survive and prosper, Britain’s orphans and outcasts must find sustainable ­sources of rebellion — and one place they can reliably do so is in art, whether it’s the otherworldly allure of David ­Bowie as Ziggy Stardust or the overtly political challenges of a novelist like Caryl Phillips himself.


By Caryl Phillips

260 pp. Farrar, Staus & Giroux. $26.

For the original review go to www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/the-lost-child-by-caryl-phillips.html

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