In The Lost Child, Phillips so cleverly transcends time and history that the lessons of the past are made all too real.
Using the life of the Brontes and the early life of the fictional character of Heathcliffe
to shepherd his major themes of rejection and isolation, Phillips has the sun sinking beneath a watery horizon and
a lonely man turning to his inconvenient wife and children. The preamble to the novel sets the tone for what is to come: the life of Heathcliffe’s mother, who some men see only as “a harlot” and who is eventually discarded by a sea captain lover as the burdensome secret of her child crawls beside her.
Phillips segues outward and into
the life of Monica Johnson, who in the late 1950s is heading toward the end of her second year at university. Her father, Ronald, has so far avoided discussions of her indiscretion, although he made it quite clear he can’t be expected to tolerate her behavior for a moment longer. Ronald has spent his life trying to please his daughter. He’s not naïve; he knows that girls of her age are often giddy over romance and quite possibly active--and also prepared to risk “the ignominy” of landing themselves in “the family way.” But nothing in Monica’s upbringing
has led him to ever imagine that Monica might become involved with a man like Julius Wilson.
Ronald’s instinctive (and racist) reaction causes a painful rift that deeply affects Monica’s life. Even when Ronald disowns Monica, she holds onto her stubborn sensibilities. She thinks her father is wrong about Julius and about what her father calls “his kind. Monica and Julius marry and movineg South, despite Julius’s misgivings about both the town and the polytechnic in which he gets a teaching position. Then they’re back in London, to a singe bedsitting room in Ladbroke Grove, where Monica does little else but care for their two young boys, while Julius--obsessed with independence discussions for his country--travels by night to an unsightly part of the City. As the truth quietly festers between them, both
abandon the ability or desire to converse with each other on any topic beyond the minutiae of daily existence.
A bit confusing at first, the addition in the middle of the novel of Emily, Charlotte, and gin-soaked Branwell Bronte gives the story depth and offers a basis for considering the actions of both Monica and her eldest boy, Ben,
who becomes our chief narrator the final third of the story. Already with a
powerful intimation of her husband’s fate, Monica finally realizes she has never
really shown full appreciation for Julius’s reciprocal gift of marriage. She
spends her first month in Leeds in public housing, then in a mournfully stark one-bedroom flat. Ensconced in this bleak and characterless landscape, she
hovers on a precipice, in danger of being swept away by a torrent of guilt and shame.
The novel is about repression, isolation and abandonment. Monica wants to be left alone with her inner life and her sons, but unfortunately the world of Leeds leads to tragedy. As a consequence of their mother’s all-consuming depression, Ben is fostered out, where yet another person is in danger of telling him to pack his bags and get ready to move on, either to new foster parents or to a children’s home. Meanwhile, curly-haired Tommy proves to be an outsider. As he grows older, the school officials see his
timidity as a sign of his neglectful upbringing. Over the course of the novel, we settle deeper into the conventions and conceits of Monica and, especially, Ben as he strives to emerge from his mother’s quiet despair and well-meaning but stifling cadre of support.
Although the story itself is quite depressing, reading it is like listening to movements of classical music in a minor key. Phillips’s exquisite examination of the commonplace, of Britain’s working class from the 1950s through to the early 1970s, reveals a masterpiece of character and reflection. We see the midway point--the cusp of feminism, if you like--arriving a little too late for Monica,
as women are only just beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by their parents or husbands.
Then there’s Ben, left on his own to cope and carry on regardless after his mother’s breakdown. At first he’s determined to maintain a continuity with the past and hold his grief inside himself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield him from the worst feelings of the tragedy and loss. As the daylight eventually starts to fade in the sky, the Moors close in on Ben, who has grown up from this “little boy lost.”
For the first time in many years, he begins to feel close to his younger brother.
Like so much of Phillips’s writing, this is a quiet story told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But there’s also a complexity to the structure which enables the author to create complete and utterly truthful characters--people
we feel we have known, or maybe even have been. Rhe wild, windswept Moors (and the ghost of
Wuthering Heights) binds Ben, Monica, and Heathcliffe together, coming to symbolize the terrible cost of their abandonment along with their sorrowful journey towards fulfillment.