A Distant Shore is the seventh novel from the prolific Caryl Phillips, who was nominated for a Booker for his 1993 Crossing of the River. A Distant Shore is a beautifully realized piece of fiction with its two central characters permanently adrift in an England that has no room for either of them.
“England has changed,” starts the novel in the voice of Dorothy, a fiftyish school music teacher who has settled down in a “new development” in a staid suburb in England. Dorothy’s lonely existence is marked by the occasional piano class she teaches to a local child who later quits and leaves Dorothy even more alone, with nothing much to mark the passage of time save for occasional visits to the pub and trips to the doctor “specialist". It is through these trips to the “specialist” (who we learn is a psychologist) that Dorothy meets Solomon, a lonely thirty-something lonely colored man whose handyman/watchman job in the development leaves him with plenty of time to endlessly polish his car.
The relationship between Dorothy and Solomon is brief; their friendship is woven around so many restrained societal codes that, unfortunately, neither can derive real comfort from it. As it turns out, the short acquaintance is the only real human interaction either Dorothy or Solomon will ever experience. Before the friendship has had a chance to mature, Solomon is brutally attacked by local skinheads and killed, and Dorothy slowly slips away into madness brought upon by extreme loneliness.
Most of A Distant Shore is set in the past — it is Phillips' attempt to explain how England can completely fail two seemingly disparate lives. Dorothy is the older of two sisters, a girl eternally loyal to her parents and unable to understand why her sister, Sheila, would leave home for good, even after she reveals to Dorothy a devastating family secret. The guilt that leaves Dorothy stranded between her parents and her sister carries her into adulthood. Dorothy finds it difficult to develop any meaningful relationships — her husband of many years simply walks out on her, and she works her way through two affairs, one with a local newspaper seller, Mahmood, and the other with a local school teacher, Geoff Waverly. Dorothy’s slow madness starts coming into focus during this last affair, and Phillips sets it off brilliantly by shifting focus between Dorothy’s and the third-person point of view. For example, Dorothy sees her interactions with Waverly as nothing more than simple human interaction. It is only later that we learn that they have become her obsession and she is forced into early retirement after sexual harassment charges are brought against her. Even later, Dorothy’s gradually increasing mania is showcased by the stunned reactions of those around her. Phillips uses the rapid change of voice expertly to paint her growing paranoia. In the end, having lost all that she had (or at least had some claim to), she finds herself hopelessly adrift: “My heart remains a desert,” she says, “but I tried. This (a nursing center) is not my home, and until they accept this, then I will be as purposefully silent as a bird in flight.”
Phillips switches the storyline back and forth between Dorothy and Solomon. As a child in Africa, Solomon is witness to the most horrific of wars. His father encourages young Gabriel (Solomon’s real name) to join the militia that can overthrow what he thinks is a tyrannical government. As commander “Hawk", Gabriel, with his men, inflicts crimes of his own, and the entire point of the exercise is lost on young Gabriel. He flees the militia to return home and warn his family about the upcoming dangers. Unfortunately, young Gabriel is too late. He watches as his entire family (father, mother, and sisters) are brutally butchered, yet thinks nothing of repeating violence in his desperate bid to leave his country for the promises of England.
Gabriel’s escape to England as an illegal and his first few days in the country are some of the best passages in A Distant Shore. The desperate attempts at life, to hold on to the hope of a renewed one and erase the past, are deeply affecting. Within his first two weeks in the country, Gabriel has been robbed, falsely accused of rape and forced to flee to the North of England before his luck finally turns. The newly named Solomon meets a kind truck driver who introduces him to a benevolent elderly couple. The couple shelter Solomon until he is “legal” and able to get a job as a handyman in a new development in town.
At many points in the novel, the storyline makes a screeching halt and Phillips suddenly shifts focus to the past. While initially startling in effect (and even distracting), this technique turns out to be very effective because it lets the reader gradually piece together the whole story. The non-sequential plotline might seem erratic at times but lends the wisdom of insight when previously narrated events are evaluated by means of new information later on. “Last night somebody introduced dog mess through my letterbox,” says Solomon towards the end of the novel. The sentence is even more chilling in its import because we know how badly it really did end.
“The light in England is very weak,” says a character in the novel, “it depresses me. They have taken the sun out of the sky.” A Distant Shore is indeed a bleak novel, but also an illuminating one. In a recent interview, Phillips mentioned that there are many in England who feel as “marooned” or left out as a new immigrant does. Dorothy and Solomon could not be more different from each other in their backgrounds. Yet in their helpless failed attempts at human interactions, they cannot be more alike. Neither can find “a place to fully understand” their lives — not within England or even within their own selves. England’s, and perhaps the larger world’s, sadness stems from the fact that the relationship between Dorothy and Solomon was doomed even before it could make any shaky beginnings.