A Distant Shore Hardcover – Oct 14 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
Both characters are fragile and brittle and spend their lives living in a new housing estate on the outskirts of a rather provincial English village. She's recently bought a new house, and he's recently found a job as a night watchman. He is black and an immigrant from Africa, escaping from a terrible and bloody civil war, and she is a recently retired music teacher who is running from a scandalous affair. Solomon is a former soldier who is escaping the horrors of a war-ravaged African country, he enters England illegally and is forced to undergo many of the trials and tribulations of a man who is sick, tired and worn out. Dorothy is reeling from a dysfunctional childhood, a loveless marriage and a messy divorce. Estranged from her sister Sheila, she is forced to reconnect and care for her sister who is dying of cancer.
Both are lonely, and full of life's disappointments and traumas. Dorothy notices "this lonely man who washes his car with a concentration that suggests a difficult life." And Solomon washes with a intensity "that would appear to be an attempt to erase a past that he no longer wishes to be reminded of." Racism, the perils of illegal immigration, the changing face of British society, the consequences of loneliness and loss are all bought to the forefront with such genuine honesty and compassion.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Phillips tells his story backwards with time scale detours in between. The final outcome comes as a shock when it is revealed less than a quarter of our way through. We then backtrack into the past when Soloman was Gabriel and we follow his escape route out of hell into the land of milk and honey. Dorothy, who disappears for much of the middle section, returns in the final third to reveal her own private hell from being repeatedly used and humiliated by men, including a male colleague and an immigrant grocer, who aren't interested in anything but a casual sexual relationship. Her fragile mental state takes a turn for the worse after she arrives a little too late to nurse her estranged and dying lesbian sister and goes into terminal decline when her friendship with Soloman is cruelly ended.
Phillips' narrative technique parallels the novel's theme of alienation and displacement. The early Dorothy sequence suggests she's an unreliable narrator before we finally realise she's indeed in mental decline. The quick cuts as we leap backwards and forwards in time is fused together expertly and seamlessly, so we don't find it confusing.
Blighted by racism and parochialism, Phillips's contemporary England isn't a pretty sight. You may not die from ethnic cleansing in England but all the same, it's a society fraying at the edges from the pressures of new social forces at work. Yet the deep, deep sadness at the heart of ADS is tempered by the realisation that in life, there's always kindness and goodness to be found in the most casual or unlikely of places and persons (eg, Soloman's sponsors from the north have absolute hearts of gold).
"A Distant Shore" is an excellent novel that will appeal to readers who love books that speak of deep and personal truths. Those who enjoyed Clare Morrall's "Astonishing Splashes Of Colours", one of last year's Booker Prize nominees, will also love "A Distant Shore".
The scene shifts astonishingly to the point of view of an African who escapes oppression, from a prison cell, giving the viewpoint of a newcomer to a society where rejection is the norm. The exploration of this oppression, external, contrasts with the self-inflicted oppression of the female character, Dorothy.
Philips is a wonderful writer, unusual in the clarity and the freedom that allows his characters' voices to emerge. Dorothy was presented with complexity and compassion. The story is skillfully woven between past and present, with threads presented in one place explored, seamlessly, from platforms a further level removed in the narrative.
The characters develop in hunking displaced quarters that beg the reader to forage her heart for compassion. This is how we live and grow, it says -- one scene at a time, life event by life event.
And haven't we all? Would any of us recognize our 40 year-old selves if our life movie were played for us at 14? Unlikely, but the view from there to here is dramatic, and Phillips has drawn that line back to a distant shore.
The author is especially great at descriptions and incidentals- the portrayal of some cultural differences as well as sad commentary on the state of womankind as depicted by Dorothy.