(British, 1958– )
Phillips was born in St Kitts and grew up in England, producing his earliest writing for the theatre. In his 1987 travel book, The European Tribe, he casts an outsider's eye, somewhat like V. S. Naipaul, at well-known bits of Europe, including two intriguing chapters set in Venice, making us look at the familiar differently. His first novel, The Final Passage (1985), takes up the theme of migration to England, in a much less jazzy way than did Selvon in the 1950s, the sombre tone signalling a shift in psychology between the migrant and someone trying to make a new home.
Two novels dealing with the theme of slavery stand out. Cambridge (1991) features an absentee plantation-owner, and an unfathomable overseer whose relationship with the highly educated Christian slave Cambridge and the black obeah-woman puzzles the innocent daughter of the estate, newly out from England. Crossing the River (1993) spans centuries and continents showing how members of an enslaved family surmount their fate. The voice of the guilt-ridden father 200 years on, and the diary of the slave-purchaser, are brought richly into play. These are imaginatively sophisticated novels, not tracts of indictment, but they do indict. In The Nature of Blood (1997) Phillips develops the parallel drawn in The European Tribe, between the historical experience of Jews and of black people. The Othello story is retold. Fifteenth-century persecution of Jews in Vienna (the background to The Merchant of Venice) and much more, come alive in the narrative. Here, Phillips makes us alert to just how precarious are notions of ‘security’, say, or ‘home’.
George Lamming, Ben Okri, Hanif Kureishi. See CARIBBEAN EM