Tag Archives: madness

A Distant Shore (2003) – Caryl PHILLIPS

This is the last novel on the course of postcolonial literature I’m doing this semester, so you won’t be bombarded by novels about the terrible things that happen during colonial times any more. Though, to be fair, this isn’t really about that at all. A Distant Shore may actually be the most postcolonial novel I’ve read all year, considering the issues it talks about.

England has changed. Both Dorothy and Solomon know it. Dorothy has separated from her husband, and moved into a new town, hoping to escape her past. Solomon has recently arrived in England, away from the violence of his home, hoping to escape his past. And as a glimmer of friendship forms between these two unlikely people,their past lives come into focus, and show us you can never really escape what you’re running from.

Good God, this is a weird novel. I don’t know whether to warn you or not about the first section, in which Dorothy comes off as just a tiny bit racist, and you really want to throttle her. Phillips plays heavily with the use of time, particularly in this first section, and if you don’t know it’s coming, it can be very off-putting. He alternates between past and present in the space of two paragraphs, completely without warning – the reasons for which don’t really become apparent until the very end of the first section, and then later on, when Dorothy comes once again into focus. The setting of the novel, too, takes a while to become clear – if you’d said to me this was set in the 1960s, the 1990s, or the 2000s, none of those answers would have surprised me. Though, as it turns out, that may rather be the point of the novel.

It takes a while to get a grip on Dorothy. As I said above, she comes off as a tiny bit racist at the beginning, but to be fair to her, that’s the least of her problems. Cut off from pretty much all human contact, this is a deeply lonely woman. The death of her parents, and then her sister, affects her far more than she would like to think. Even her sleeping around with a few men doesn’t seem to find her any solace. But as she slowly descends into what is probably certifiable madness, it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Maybe because Phillips just doesn’t make us care enough – there’s never even a glimmer of redemption in this woman. Everything she does is just weirdly unlikable. Not a character I’d like to have dinner with, anyway.

Which leaves us with Solomon, who is comparatively more likeable. He comes into his own in the middle section, where we see from what he was escaping. There are other, better, descriptions of a generic war-torn African nation than the one Phillips presents here, so I don’t want to spend too much time on that. What interests me more, particularly in the context of the current Australian political climate, is his escape from Africa, and into England. It is not a pretty journey, and I think Phillips does a good job of capturing the desperation of refugees, without going too far. There’s no attempt at fake emotion here, though just as with Dorothy, the whole thing does seem a little too restrained.

There are some nice moments scattered throughout the novel: Solomon’s realisation that the culture of England is not at all like his own; Dorothy’s awkward conversations with the small-minded bartender she goes to for Guinness. There are probably others, but the fact that none of these characters make me feel anything – love, hate, anger, desire – makes me realise just how disconnected I felt from the whole thing.

I hesitate to use the same word to describe this novel three times in the space of about 700 words, but I’m going to. A Distant Shore is weird. There’s nothing to really grab onto and pull yourself into the ideas and themes of the book. Phillips is, I suspect, trying to show just how much England has changed – for better or worse, though, I don’t know. Dorothy, our English character, goes mad because she can’t connect with anyone on a real level, while Solomon, our immigrant, is brutally murdered, seemingly just because he is black. A bleak message, though it ultimately doesn’t pack any real punch.

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