Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Triple Mirror Images in Black and White

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Triple Mirror Images in Black and White

Article excerpt

CROSSING THE RIVER By Caryl Phillips Alfred A. Knopf 237 pp., $25

A NAMELESS black father in another century sells his three African children into slavery. "The crops failed," he explains calmly. "I sold my children."

In his novel "Crossing the River," Caryl Phillips begins the narrative at that moment of betrayal - "desperate foolishness," says the father - and with a spare, resonant vision Phillips explores aspects of the universal black experience since slavery. The novel was nominated in 1993 for the British Booker Prize.

For Phillips, born in the West Indies and educated in England, the three children become emblematic and symbolic, their separate experiences rooted in three different times - early and late 19th century and mid-20th century - and on three continents. Phillips intends the children, Nash, Marsha, and Travis, to serve as carriers of the burdens of all blacks as "children" surviving in a world made selfish and stupid by racism.

Nash is enslaved in America, converts to Christianity through a white mentor, and returns to Africa to convert others. Marsha's short chapter focuses on her as a lonely old woman in the West after the Civil War. And Travis appears as a sweet-natured American soldier in World War II in England and has an affair with a married white English woman.

Another section in the book is composed of excerpts from the ship's log of an 18th-century British slave trader.

Phillips's writing is pure, smooth, and unembellished. Whether he writes in the vernacular of the 18th century or the voice of a chronically unhappy English woman, the line is beautifully sure.

But Phillips's thematic intent trips over the wider implications that muscle into the world of this novel; this is not just the story of blacks, but is almost equally the story of whites.

As has been noted well in some 20th-century literature, particularly from William Faulkner and James Baldwin, blacks and whites are inescapably linked in a kind of mirror image of mutual distortion. …

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