CROSSING THE RIVER by Caryl Phillips


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 Short-listed for the 1993 Booker Prize (see Roddy Doyle above), Phillips's latest novel (Cambridge, 1992; Final Passage, 1990, etc.), like a work of sacred music, combines a ``many-tongued chorus'' limning the pervasive legacy of slavery with an eloquent celebration of survival--of arrival ``on the far bank of the river.'' An African father confesses that it was ``a desperate foolishness...the crops failed...I sold my children and soon after, the chorus of common memory began to haunt me...for two hundred and fifty years I have listened to the many-tongued chorus and occasionally among the restless voices I have discovered those of my own children. My Nash. My Martha. My Travis.'' Their life stories--like those of all slavery's children--are ``fractured, sinking hopeful roots into difficult soil.'' Relieved only by excerpts from the 18th-century diary of a slave-trader who, ``approached by a quiet fellow, bought 2 strong man-boys and a proud girl,'' these stories form the book's core. Nash is transformed into an educated slave who, freed by his idealistic, fervently Christian master, Edward Williams, goes with his encouragement to establish a mission in the newly colonized Liberia. Life there is difficult; letters home to Edward are mysteriously unanswered; and, despairing, Nash moves into the bush and marries local women. A poignant last letter--in which he explains his decision to ``live the life of the African''--is read by a grieving Edward. Meanwhile, Martha appears as a former slave whose beloved only child was sold, and who spends her life searching for her Eliza Mae, then dying--old and frail--in Denver; and Travis becomes a GI in wartime Britain, marrying a local woman with her own unhappy past before he is killed in battle. Beautifully measured writing that powerfully evokes the far- reaching realities of the African diaspora. A master work.

Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-40533-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1993


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