Desperate, displaced people populate the latest from award-winning essayist, critic and novelist Phillips (Crossing the River; The Nature of Blood). Dorothy is a divorced retired schoolteacher with a troubled past and an increasingly precarious present, drifting further into depression and mental illness in the small northern England town of Weston where she has gone to flee the death of her sister and a series of reckless love affairs with married men. Solomon, in his early 30s, is a survivor of a war-torn African country, witness to events and atrocities almost too painful to recount, which include the execution of his own family. They meet in a small corner of England, given one last chance at redemption and belonging-this time with one another-before prejudice and brute violence destroy even that. Phillips crafts his novel with great skill, portraying his characters with a faithful eye that reveals their inner beauty as clearly as their defects. A true master of form, he manipulates narrative time (which skips, speeds and sometimes runs backward) and perspective to create a disjointed sense of place that mirrors the tortured, fractured inner lives of his characters. Phillips's vision is of a splintered, fragile world where little seems to have inherent meaning and love is opportunistic and fleeting. As Dorothy reaches her tragic end, she receives a visit from the husband who left her long ago for a younger woman; he himself has now been abandoned. The message of our inherent aloneness is clear. As Dorothy herself says, in a note to one of her married lovers: "Abandonment is a state that is not alien to man." The book expresses an even bleaker view: that abandonment is not only a risk, but our natural condition.
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"They do not know who I am," thinks Solomon, an African man living just outside an English village where the local racists make their hatred known. In that lightning-bolt observation, Phillips--an impeccable stylist and astute dramatist of the paradoxical inhumanity of humankind and the sorrows of the African diaspora--cuts to the quick of the conflict between fearful Europeans and tragically displaced African and Asian refugees. Solomon's politeness and restraint mask the traumas of his life as a veteran of a brutal civil war, witness to the massacre of his family, and the survivor of a perilous journey and a treacherous exile. But he has met with kindness as well as savagery in his adopted country, and seeks a bond with his beautiful, decorous, and solitary neighbor. Although Dorothy grew up in the village, she does not share her neighbors' violent prejudice. Forced into a scandalous early retirement, she, too, is plagued by anguished memories of a lifetime of loss and betrayal. Brilliantly realized, these outsiders are rife with ambiguity, heartsick over their fate, but determined to press on. The author of seven extraordinarily elegant and unflinching novels (Crossing the River  was short-listed for the Booker Prize), Phillips is a clarion realist devoted to confronting our capacity for both cruelty and compassion. Donna Seaman
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