CAMBRIDGE by Caryl Phillips


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 A further exploration of slavery and the African diaspora by West Indian-born and British-reared Phillips (The Final Passage, 1990, etc.), which, for all its ambition, reads more like a term paper than a novel. Intent on showing the pervasive and malign effect of slavery on both slave and slaveholder, Phillips has two narrators whose stories parallel but never really connect. The slave trade is ended, but not slavery, when 30-ish and unmarried Emily sails to a nameless Caribbean island to report on conditions on her father's plantations. Her feelings about slavery are confused--``I am not sure of what I am''--which is intentional, given her role as a somewhat impersonal conduit for information and observations on slave behavior, the slaves' African heritage, and life on the plantation, which is the setting for her education. Strangely isolated from the island community, Emily talks mostly to Stella, the slave housekeeper; the local doctor; and the overseer, Arnold Brown, a caricature of the type. Brown suddenly seduces Emily, who has hitherto been quite critical of him. But Emily as a beneficiary, however innocent, of slavery must suffer: Brown is murdered, and Emily gives birth to a still-born child. The other narrator, who tells a much shorter story, is Cambridge, an aging slave. On the eve of his execution for the murder of Brown, who had been molesting his deeply disturbed wife, he recalls his journey from Africa to England, where he was freed and educated, and the misfortune that brought him back to slavery. Emily is a synthetic creation, and only the slave Cambridge has some credibility, but even he is subordinated to theme. Fiction that manipulates rather than illuminates--which is pity because when he mutes the message, Phillips can write.

Pub Date: Feb. 5th, 1992
ISBN: 0-679-40532-1
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1991


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