Synopses & Reviews
A powerful and affecting new book from Caryl Phillips: a brilliant hybrid of reportage, fiction, and historical fact that tells the stories of three black men whose lives speak resoundingly to the place and role of the foreigner in English society.
Francis Barber, "given" to the great eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson, more companion than servant, afforded an unusual depth of freedom that, after Johnson's death, hastened his wretched demise...Randolph Turpin, who made history in 1951 by defeating Sugar Ray Robinson, becoming Britain's first black world-champion boxer, a top-class fighter for twelve years whose life ended in debt and despair...David Oluwale, a Nigerian stowaway who arrived in Leeds in 1949, the events of whose life called into question the reality of English justice, and whose death at the hands of police in 1969 served as a wake-up call for the entire nation.
Each of these men's stories is rendered in a different, perfectly realized voice. Each illuminates the complexity and drama that lie behind the simple notions of haplessness that have been used to explain the tragedy of these lives. And each explores, in entirely new ways, the themes at once timeless and urgent that have been at the heart of all of Caryl Phillips's remarkable work: belonging, identity, and race.
"Along with interest and admiration, I read parts of Caryl Phillips's new book, Foreigners
, with, I confess, a mixture of bemused perplexity and thwarted expectations, wondering, what is this guy up to here? The rather stodgy historical passages coexist somewhat uneasily with the more fluid and lyrical fictionalized accounts. The three sections rub up against each other with a fierce but not quite cohesive energy. But in the end, the book is a bleakly ironic examination of what it means to be Other historically and socially through the stories of three very different black men in England. The first section, 'Doctor Johnson's Watch,' is narrated by a late 18th-century journalist who sets out to write a piece for a gentleman's magazine about Francis Barber, the Jamaican boy who was 'given' in the early 1750s to Dr. Samuel Johnson, of the famous Dictionary
. Dr. Johnson raised the 'negro' as his ward until his death; he gave him his freedom and a generous pension, which Barber squandered. At the end of the narrative, Barber, lying on the verge of death in a squalid pauper's hospital, offers poignant insight into the nature of freedom and otherness, insight that the journalist, despite good intentions, may not be prepared to receive. The second section, 'Made in Wales,' is narrated in a hard-boiled third person that traces the rise and fall of Randy Turpin, the mixed-race boxer who beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1951 to become, briefly, middleweight champion of the world, then fell, inevitably, the narrative suggests, into hapless debt and ruin. The third, final, most riveting and beautifully written section, 'Northern Lights,' is told by a chorus of voices who cobble together the mysterious life and death of David Oluwale, a 20th-century version of Bartleby, a stowaway from Nigeria who washes up in Leeds in 1949 and ends his life stubbornly homeless, willfully persecuted and in 1969, drowned. Interestingly, Phillips goes into none of these three black men's consciousnesses or psyches. The reader stands some distance away from them with the narrators; except for Barber's piercing, frank lament, we don't get any direct emotional information from any of them. This narrative strategy is essential to the book's intent, as is, I suspect, the uneasiness it provoked in me along the way. Phillips gets at real-life complexities in a visceral, nondidactic way: there are no victims or heroes here. I finished the book hearing Melville's 'Ah humanity!' echoing back through its pages." Signature Review by Kate Christensen. Kate Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man, was published last month by Doubleday.
" Publishers Weekly
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"Flawlessly blending many of the techniques of fiction and journalism...Foreigners is written with all of his usual energy, precision, and fierce sympathy for his characters' strengths and weaknesses alike....For his artistic vision and moral courage, at a time when these qualities are in short supply yet matter as much as ever, we owe Caryl Phillips a deep debt of gratitude." Boston Globe
"Readers familiar with Caryl Phillips's award-winning novels know how skillfully he combines fiction and history to convey the complex nature of racial, national and personal identities in modern Britain....In this triptych of fictionalized biographies, Phillips's characters remain strangers in a strange land, alienated from their countrymen by circumstance and racism, as well as by their own behavior." Vincent Carretta, The Washington Post Book World
(read the entire Washington Post Book World review
About the Author
Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, West Indies, and brought up in England. He is also the author of three books of nonfiction and eight novels. His most recent book, Dancing in the Dark, won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award; A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Prize. His other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and currently lives in New York City.