Award-winning novelist, essayist and playwright Phillips (Color Me English, 2011, etc.) responds to Wuthering Heights.
A difficult daughter and an unhappy wife, Monica Johnson is contrary, self-destructive and—finally—mad. That Monica, in her broad outlines, resembles Cathy Earnshaw is no accident. Her story—as well as that of her husband and their sons—is interwoven with scenes inspired by Wuthering Heights and the life of its author. This is not to say that Monica is Cathy, transplanted from the moors to Oxford in the late 1950s. This is not a retelling. The interplay between this novel and Emily Brontë’s masterpiece is much more interesting than that. For example, Phillips imagines Heathcliff before Mr. Earnshaw takes him to the Heights. This boy is the son of a slave, a woman who worked a sugar plantation before being transported to England. Phillips isn’t the first to read Brontë’s “dark-skinned” antihero as black, but he also connects the boy to Monica’s husband, Julius—a man who gives up academic life in order to take up the cause of anti-colonialism in his West Indian home country—and to their neglected, dispossessed sons. The thematic links between the modern story and Wuthering Heights only become clear over time, and—even then—they’re too rich and subtle to work as simple allegory. Empire and race are among Phillips’ concerns, but he also offers heartbreaking depictions of alienation and the fragility of human relationships. While it would be easy to identify Heathcliff as the lost child of the title, it could also refer to Monica’s younger son—or her older boy. But Monica is lost, too. And then there’s Brontë, drifting further and further into her invented world as she dies. What Phillips seems to be saying, in the end, is that the lost child could be any of us—perhaps even that the lost child is all of us.
Gorgeously crafted and emotionally shattering.