The Idea of England
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."