An unlikely couple seek shelter from the brutal chill of northern English attitudes.
Anglo-Caribbean writer Phillips (The Nature of Blood, 1997; The Atlantic Sound, 2000, etc.) continues to build his elegantly crafted collection of work about lives in, but not of, England, this time bringing a mentally ailing, forcibly retired music teacher into tentative association with an African political refugee. Dorothy Jones is a divorced, once-beautiful woman in her 50s whose increasingly erratic behavior gave cause for her dismissal as a schoolteacher. The elder daughter of a truculent working-class father and unprotective mother, Dorothy failed early on to lend vital assistance to her abused sister when she needed it, and was unable to enliven her marriage with the higher-class but ineffective banker who left her for a younger woman. A couple of ruinous affairs capping this dismal history have pushed her into near-madness. Now, her parents and sister dead, she lives alone in a new subdivision outside her childhood village where her only friendly neighbor is Solomon, the neighborhood watchman and handyman. A fugitive from bloody African political upheaval, Solomon has been even more brutally battered than Dorothy, but he is made of stronger stuff. Phillips backtracks to show Solomon’s nightmarish stint as a rebel soldier and equally hellish escape to England and his painful steps to a new identity, assisted by an Irish truck-driver and his landlords the only kindly people in the forlorn surroundings. The success with this pairing of lives is mixed. Dorothy Jones comes perilously close in some ways to Blanche Dubois without the guts, but her surroundings are perfectly rendered, and Solomon is drawn with Phillips’s accustomed precision and depth, and, with the calm, cool understanding of the reality of racial foolishness, it’s enough to tip the balance.
Harsh and sad, but worth the trip.