Novelist Phillips (The Nature of Blood, 1997, etc.) visits the three points of the trading triangle that linked America with Europe and Africa—and reports back in a tale that is a seamless mix of clear-eyed reportage and commentary.
The author begins his voyage to the past via the present by taking a banana-loaded freighter from Guadeloupe to Dover, England. Deliciously reminiscent of Waugh, Phillips offers tart but perceptive comments on his fellow passengers (including an Englishwoman who insists on needling two German couples), the crew, and the voyage itself. Next he travels to Liverpool, the port that was enriched by its trade with Africa—in particular, by the slave trade. In this section, as in the subsequent two, the author chooses a real figure from the past to illumine the present: here, a West African trader named John Ocansey, who sailed to Liverpool in 1881 to sort out the finances of his father-in-law (unfortunately duped by a local merchant). Phillips visits, among other monuments, the grand Town Hall built in 1754 as a testament to the fortunes made in Liverpool from trade, but he finds the city a place where "history is physically present, yet glaringly absent from people's consciousness." Next, in Ghana, he refers to the memoirs of the African Philip Quaque, who served as chaplain at the British slave trading fort but never mentioned the slave trade; and he attends a lackluster "Panafest" (which, rather than reunite African-Americans and Africans, only serves to emphasize their differences). He then goes on to Charleston, South Carolina, where a third of the slaves landed, and as he visits the relevant landmarks he details the life of Judge Waring, who was ostracized in the 1940s for his anti-segregation rulings.
A splendidly honest and vividly detailed venture into some of history's darkest corners—by a novelist who is also a superb reporter.