HIGHER GROUND by Caryl Phillips


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Here, West Indian-born and British-educated writer Phillips (The European Tribe, 1987; A State of Independence, 1986) attempts to achieve an ambitious and perhaps impossible aim. Written in three parts, set in three continents, spanning two centuries, and in just over 200 pages, Phillips seeks to link together the evils of white slave-traders, southern racists, and the perpetrators of the Holocaust in one literary triptych. The nameless African hero of the first part, who can read and write English, is despised by his fellow blacks because he helps the slave traders separate families and tribesmen before shipping them off to America. When he rescues a young woman brutalized by his white superior and tries to hide her in the slave fort, he himself is thrown onto a slave ship. The middle story is told in the form of letters written by a young black man imprisoned in a southern jail for armed robbery. As his sentence is increased for various misdemeanors, his health weakens from the harsh treatment, his mother dies, he cannot see his baby daughter, and at the end, like his slave forebears, he seems doomed to unending bondage. Addressed to family members and his lawyers, these letters--predictable set-pieces--are much too full of clumsy preaching and tired rhetoric. In the final and most effective section, a Jewish refugee, Irina, is sent from Poland to safety in England, but she's unable to forget her family and their fate, cannot hold a job or form any relationship, and is doomed to another form of slavery--permanent institutionalization. Discovering some DNA-like pattern within evil, some pattern that repeats itself over the years, may be impossible. Here, though Phillips' men and women are doomed to horrible lives because of the societies they live in, and rightly deserve our sympathy, his triptych is more a sketch of already familiar examples than a revelation of some grand design, rich in incident and character.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
ISBN: 0679763767
Publisher: Viking