At regular intervals, after writing a novel set in Europe or America, Caryl Phillips returns to the country that seems to affect him like no other, and that has been as fertile a ground for his imagination as it is barren for his characters. A cosmopolitan traveler who has lived for many years in the United States and whose work often follows the tracks of the black diaspora across Europe, Africa and the Americas, Phillips has nevertheless remained rooted to England. His first novel, published in 1985, was called The Final Passage, as if there was no going back for the characters who had left the Caribbean for England: having disposed of their belongings, said farewell to their friends and boarded the ship, they were condemned to stay on in an indifferent mother country, desolate figures shuffling through a grim postwar landscape, their final passage bringing full circle the journey set in motion by the Middle Passage of African slaves shipped by the English to the sugar islands of the West Indies.

If the characters cannot return, the writer, however, can. Phillips’s latest novel unfolds in contemporary England, a world, at least in its external markers, far removed from the gray zone etched in The Final Passage nearly a quarter-century ago. In the Falling Snow pulsates with the bright materialism of New Labour. There are Pizza Express outlets everywhere, bottles of Sancerre are as ubiquitous as bottled water and the municipal councils are so enlightened that they are equipped with race relations units. As for Keith Gordon, the middle-aged protagonist, he belongs to English society in ways that his fictional West Indian predecessors couldn’t have imagined. Raised partially by a white stepmother, married for many years to a white woman from the Home Counties, he is also the head of the Race Equality Unit in a government agency in London. Still, from the novel’s first scene, in which Keith heads to an assignation with a young co-worker named Yvette, it’s clear that some things haven’t changed in Phillips’s England. Keith may be a smartly dressed urban professional, but he still maps the city into the sections where he belongs and those where he doesn’t, as in this suburb, where he sees people fighting the impulse to cross the street as he walks toward them.

There’s more, however, to Keith’s lacerated sense of self than the edge of racial difference. When he sleeps with Yvette, a recent hire at the Race Equality Unit and herself of European and African descent, the sexual intercourse between them, perceived through Keith’s point of view, is layered with details yet stripped of all affect, as if Keith is removed from the act even while it occurs: "He watches as she loses herself in what he imagines is the familiar entanglement of female feelings of guilt and vulnerability, but he is untroubled by her temporary plight." If there is any emotional backlighting to their coupling, it is provided by Keith’s regrets about his separation from his wife, Annabelle (caused, so he says, by a single, drunken act of infidelity), and his worries about Laurie, their troubled 17-year-old son. But Keith’s feelings about them seem to be on a low setting, emitting a steady but dim glow. The measures he takes to sort out his tangled relationships just make things worse. He terminates the affair with Yvette, in part because he can’t commit to being with her beyond their interludes of joyless lovemaking; but he breaks things off so awkwardly, and with such indifference, that she brings a sexual harassment charge against him. When Keith is forced to go on leave by his manager, his isolation is complete.

Despite giving the appearance of experimenting with form, Phillips’s fiction has always been steeped in realism, deriving much of its emotional charge by setting the story of a character’s education, his or her Bildung, in a rich social and historical setting. It seems reasonable therefore to see the central theme of this novel as the unmaking or remaking of Keith in contemporary England, and the novel’s third-person narration seems to emphasize this by staying within Keith’s point of view, following it closely across rapid shifts in time even as the present tense of the main story ensures that we experience immediate events at roughly the same pace as the protagonist. If this approach demands from us a willing immersion in Keith’s life, it also requires that Keith be able to hold our attention, and that the novel animate his existence beyond the situational details (the separation from his wife, the sexual harassment charge and the estrangement from his son) or contextual markers (blackness, masculinity, middle-age alienation and millennial dysfunctionality) that accrete around him.

Keith’s confession that he will fill his solitude by pursuing a long-deferred ambition to write a book about soul music, reggae and "World Music" offers just this sort of promise. Another novelist might use this kind of project to signal something about the protagonist and the laws that govern his or her world. With Phillips, one expects him to tap into a vein from his nonfiction writing on music, which includes a superb piece on the R&B singer Marvin Gaye in the essay collection A New World Order (2001). The possibility that Keith will engage with Gaye is a tempting one, and not just because the singer’s life and work spiraled around race, social unrest and sex. Gaye’s death at the hands of his father mirrors, in a different time and place, Keith’s uneasy relationship with his father, who lives somewhere in the north, and with his son, who exists in a land of youthful rebellion that Keith can’t comprehend, let alone visit.

 

Yet Keith’s passion for music is muted by the novel. It materializes only in a few snippets about bands and singers, some descriptions of the writing pads, Post-it notes and brightly colored paper files in Keith’s home office, and far too many reflections on writer’s block. By the time Keith admits to wanting to write about the American singer Gil Scott-Heron, all the while worrying about "how much, if anything, his potential British readers will know about the chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs of the United States," one feels like telling him just to put the music on and give his readers and himself a blast of Scott-Heron:

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
Skip out for beer during commercials because
The revolution will not be televised.

The characters in Phillips’s early work, as far back as his brilliant and fiery first novel, do not leave a reader feeling such impatience. When The Final Passage appeared, Phillips was 27, not much older than Zadie Smith was when she published her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000, but he already possessed a body of work that included four plays. He had also visited St. Kitts, an island of sixty-five square miles in the eastern Caribbean from which his parents emigrated in 1958, carrying with them a four-month-old son named Caryl. The time spent in St. Kitts may partly explain why Phillips’s touch seems so sure in the Caribbean section of The Final Passage. The novel opens with a young woman called Leila waiting with her infant son for her husband, Michael, to join her in boarding the SS Winston Churchill, but it then loops back to capture their existence on the small, unnamed island from which they are setting sail. The novel displays the confidence of the social-realist tradition Phillips was working within at the time; and in devoting half the book to the story of Leila and Michael before their departure, Phillips establishes their humanity, giving their lives a heft that makes us react especially strongly to what happens to them after the final passage.

Although Phillips shows how the smallness of the island generates a web of intimate, intersecting relationships, he does not view the place through the filter of nostalgia. If there is great warmth in the friendship between Leila and Millie, who have known each other since childhood, there is also the legacy of colonialism, the discord between generations and the casual disregard men have for women, which in Michael’s case veers into acts of cruelty, such as deserting Leila on their wedding night and fathering a child with another woman. Nevertheless, there is no character who is not distinct and who does not arouse our interest and empathy, from the giraffe-like Bradeth and the sharp-tongued Millie to the passenger on the Winston Churchill whom we never meet and yet seem to know intimately from the declaration painted on his suitcase: Property of Larrington Seville. To Be Handled With Care. Destined for London College of Law Studies. London. England. Thank You.

Phillips proved himself to be equally accomplished in his second novel, A State of Independence (1986), which reversed the journey depicted in The Final Passage. It is a quieter work, its subject more unusual, depicting the experience of Bertram Francis, who returns home from England after two decades to find it ready for independence. The island Francis left behind has moved on, as have the people he knew, but Francis himself, in an ironic twist on the usual idea of immigration as progress, is stranded somewhere between England and his island home, unable to accept either English complacency or postcolonial self-satisfaction of the sort Frantz Fanon had in mind when he wrote, in The Wretched of the Earth, of a smug national bourgeoisie turning their homeland into a tourist resort for their former imperial masters.

When read alongside the first novel, A State of Independence demonstrates not only Phillips’s grasp of the complex legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean—particularly how the overt dominance of Britain has been supplanted by the subtler hegemonic role of the United States—but also his sustained focus on people struggling to wrest a sense of belonging, if not of home, from sweeping historical processes. In his subsequent novels, Phillips continued to scrutinize migration, belonging and the black experience, but the tightly structured narratives of the early works gave way to a looser form and a widening lens. His third novel, Higher Ground (1989), established what would become a recurring pattern. The book consists of three stories, each centered on a single figure (an African slave, a black American political prisoner and a Polish woman refugee), but the three strands are meant to coalesce as a single narrative in their common themes of oppression and resistance. A powerful historical imagination is at work in these earlier books, especially in the way Phillips creates a specific time, place and character through narrative voice. This ranges from the momentary reflection, as in the case of Emily, the plantation owner’s daughter in Cambridge (1991), whose attention to details creates a surface of control beneath which lurks the fear of miscegenation ("Mr. Brown tells me that the fruit of no two trees is the same, and that the seeds of the finest mango, though carefully sown and cultivated, seldom result in fruit comparable to the parent stock"), to the retrospective glance, such as the short, choppy opening lines in Crossing the River (1993), which launch a century-long journey: "A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children."

 

It is midway through Phillips’s career that one senses his considerable talent calcifying into a mannered style. This is a problem that first becomes apparent in his sixth novel, The Nature of Blood (1997), where in a story shifting between the fifteenth century and the twentieth, and moving across Amsterdam, Venice, British Palestine and Israel, Phillips attempts to depict a European tribalism that has often waged a brutal war against minorities. Although there are many narratives in the book, the primary one involves the parallel experiences of an African condottiere in Renaissance Italy, based on Othello, and that of a Jewish girl in Nazi Europe, based on Anne Frank. Phillips’s anger about racism and his ability to delve into the historical past are undeniable, but despite all the harrowing details, the narrative feels imaginatively poor, and the critical praise the novel garnered seems to have been sparked more by the frisson of pairing Anne Frank and Othello than by how they were depicted in the novel.

Phillips has continued to insist on creating a sequence of narratives that are meant to resonate with one another, especially in the juxtaposition of black male and white female characters. The sentiment behind this is admirable, demonstrating that the black experience is not a marginal one, as it is often considered to be, but fundamental to the making of the modern world, as is the experience of women. However, the way Phillips has applied this pattern since The Nature of Blood can seem glibly multicultural, capable of being assimilated so rapidly into a liberal discourse of the "Save Darfur" variety that his readers are never forced to engage with the possibility of their complicity in the forces of oppression.

These weaknesses are particularly visible in A Distant Shore, the England novel that appeared six years before In the Falling Snow. Divided into the stories of Dorothy, a retired English schoolteacher, and Gabriel, an African refugee from a horrific civil war, the novel insists on the human connection being forged between these characters as well as the broad parallel between their experiences. The book’s linguistic texture seems to emphasize this connection; although Phillips switches between the first and third person for both Dorothy and Gabriel, all the sections possess a marked sameness of tone, vocabulary and level of detail.

Yet this very uniformity in language creates a sense of incompatibility between the characters. Gabriel’s story remains alive through the language chosen for him, in great part because his journey is an epic one, taking him through war and border crossings to the hostile cities of the West. But Dorothy’s account, for the most part, sounds flat and stilted: "During the past hour the landlord had twice been outside to ask the youngsters to calm down, but things were clearly out of control…. This was his clientele and to bar them would be to effectively lose his business." If Dorothy’s character is her language (with its preponderance of adverbs, which mutate like a virus in Phillips’s later work), it is possible to see her, against the grain of what Phillips intends, as slightly clueless and somewhat patronizing toward Gabriel. This makes the novel’s insistence that Gabriel’s trauma could be healed by Dorothy’s tepid warmth rather suspect, bringing it uncomfortably close to a complacent bureaucrat’s idea of how an immigrant might be assimilated into a "host" society.

 

Phillips’s latest novel is similarly compromised. There is much that Keith finds wrong with British society, but like Dorothy, whom he resembles in his overdependence on clichés, he cannot express his discontent in a meaningful way. Riding on the tube, Keith reflects:

Every day now he witnesses packs of these youngsters on the street, or on the tube, or on the buses, swearing and carrying on with a sense of entitlement that is palpably absurd. Each of them seems to believe that he or she is an "achiever," and that they deserve nothing less than what they call "maximum respect."

The novel is thick with such passages, and they are not limited to Keith’s thoughts. Many of the characters behave like forensic technicians at a crime scene, plucking samples of clumsy language from the air and dropping them into a quotation bag ("What do you mean by ‘the next stage’?" "’Not’? What kind of English is that?" "’In our sphere’? What kind of talk is that?" "Well, excuse me, didn’t I just hear you say that you would ‘come up in the morning’?").

The patter of the narration is no different from the clatter in the quotation bag, brimming everywhere with clichés and flat dialogue; the only time the novel manages to shake off this blight of language is when it focuses on two characters who are foreigners. The first is a Polish cleaning woman named Danuta, whom Keith meets at a library. There is much that Phillips does well when introducing Danuta into the story. To begin with, she does not appear, as is often the case in Phillips’s work, to function as a counterpart to the male protagonist. She is her own character, and the charge she brings into the novel is that of the unknown. Although Phillips skillfully works in her background, showing us how Danuta’s life is composed of low-wage work, immigrant striving and touch-and-go relationships, she retains a slightly opaque tint that makes her hard to comprehend. She does not speak very much, but when she does, her tightly structured sentences, prefaced by "Mr. Keith," evoke very well the immigrant’s cautious negotiation of an alien world.

The other character who breathes some life into the novel is Keith’s father, Earl; he appears toward the end, recuperating in a hospital bed from a heart attack. Throughout the novel, it has been suggested that Keith’s difficulties with his son resemble those between Keith and his father. When Earl finally gets his say, he does so in a monologue broken into two parts, beginning with how he arrived in England as a 22-year-old in 1960, continuing through episodes of humiliation, friendship, betrayal and madness, and finishing with the statement "The idea of England is fine…. I can deal with the idea." Like Danuta, Earl handles language differently, but where she is reserved and hesitant, he speaks with a Caribbean fluency, using long, sinuous sentences that unpack an entire life: "So while you know everything about them, daffodil, king this and queen that, poet and lyrical feeling and so forth, Sherlock Holmes, Noël Coward, this statue and that statue, castle and tower, Robin Hood, Lord Nelson, whatever question they care to test you on you have England under control."

Neither Earl nor Danuta can rescue In the Falling Snow from its faults. Earl appears too late in the narrative, confined to a minor supporting role in the melodrama of Keith’s crisis of masculinity, while Danuta is perfunctorily dispatched with a third of the book remaining, which leaves the novel inexplicably tied to its anodyne protagonist. Before Earl and Danuta are sidelined, however, they show that Phillips’s strength lies in looking from the margins at the trauma of arrival rather than attempting to depict the anomie at its center. It is unfortunate that in his recent novels Phillips has chosen to focus so much on the mundane, scavenging social markers—the reversed baseball cap, the iPod, the action film, the bus on the M1—that are never quite transformed into the elements of a compelling vision. It might be possible to bring together, in fictional form, the estranged and the mundane, the bewilderment felt by immigrants trying to make their way in the West and the numbness of those who, having become its citizens, discover that there is no longer such a thing as society in the West, but Phillips has not yet been able to splice the two together. For the time being, they remain divided aspects of his work, existing on opposite sides of a border that cannot be breached.