Picks and Pans Review: Cambridge
by Caryl Phillips
Phillips’s novels (The Final Passage, Higher Ground) are filled with uprooted characters in search of a home—the writer’s own key issue. Where indeed is home for a man born in St. Kitts, in the British West Indies, reared in England and educated at Oxford, whose ancestors were African slaves who worked the Caribbean plantations that kept the British wealthy?
In Cambridge, his powerful fourth novel, Phillips brings to life a Caribbean island at the beginning of the Victorian era, the twilight of slavery. Two characters tell his tale. First comes the journal of Emily Cartwright, a straitlaced British spinster sent by her father to take stock of his sugar plantation. Emily, a perfect product of her time, eloquently describes the manufacture of sugar, the slaves’ long workday and the cruelties they endure, yet blithely accepts the superiority of her “privileged pigmentation” and with no malice views “Negroes” as a kind of livestock. She sometimes resembles a Jane Austen heroine, except that she never seeks nor attains any redeeming self-awareness.
Next comes the briefer but equally striking autobiography of Cambridge, a middle-aged slave who years earlier had been sent to London, educated and set free. Becoming a Christian missionary, he travels to Africa only to be enslaved again and sold to the Cartwright plantation.
Neither Emily nor Cambridge is entirely at home in any of the worlds they have known. Emily too is a kind of slave. Before she sets sail, her father arranges to marry her off, upon her return, to a much older man, a wealthy widower. As far as Emily is concerned, her father cares only about continuing to “indulge himself in the heavy-pocketed manner to which he has become accustomed.” Cambridge clings tenaciously to his Christian faith and tries to reach out to the white Christians around him, seemingly unaware that they regard him as less than human. If Cambridge is both a keen observer and painfully blind, so is Emily. She records in detail the mediocrity of the island whites but reasons that the slaves have dragged them down to their own level.
Phillips brings both his protagonists to dismal ends. He leaves us with Emily’s bleak advice, “Do not…grow old in a place that is unkind to you.” But have either of them known a kind place? For the reader the pleasure is in the virtuosity of Phillips’s prose and the skill of his historiography. And perhaps, in some hearts, in the tears of recognition. (Knopf, $19)