on 12 June 2001
SET firmly and with a sustained and vivid sensuous immediacy in the 19th century, and taking place mostly in the exotic world of the British West Indies though some scenes are set in London and the English countryside, "Cambridge" tells two stories that are closely related, indeed inextricably joined in time and place.
These two stories ought to be one (and are united in the novel), but prove to be more separate than the central characters are able to imagine, because of a multitude of assumptions, prejudices and fundamental misapprehensions that isolate individuals not so much from one another as from the possibility of any clear and present understanding of others' motives, actions or points of view. These personal and social misunderstandings lead inexorably to tragedy. At the center of the human tragedy is the institution of slavery, by then unlawful in Britain but still practiced legally in the West Indies.
Among many credible, well-realized characters, black and white, the two major figures are a sensitive and thoughtful Englishwoman, unmarried and "almost 30," Emily Cartwright, and a proud and powerful slave called Cambridge, who lives on her father's plantation and whom Emily dubs Hercules in the privacy of her diary. In a story with layers of irony, it is ironic that Cambridge never knows about Emily's nickname for him. Nor can she ever know the names that he has had -- his "true Guinea name, Olumide"; his first slave name, Thomas; his Christian name, under which he preached as a missionary in England, David Henderson. She, in fact, knows next to nothing of his personal history and she figures less in his life and thoughts than she imagines. Though both the central characters reveal themselves to be complex, ambiguous and conflicted, they also come across (a triumph of Caryl Phillips's craft and art) as fundamentally good and decent people who try to be honest with themselves and who mean to do well, but who fail because of personal limitations and huge social forces beyond their control.
THE core of "Cambridge" is in the stories of Emily Cartwright and of Cambridge, as told by themselves in their own words. They speak to us in a written language, she first in the form of a fairly leisurely journal of her voyage out and her visit to the Indies and the sugar plantation of which her father is the absentee owner; he, Cambridge, near the end of an urgent recounting of his life and times, featuring a different version of some of the events in her account, and with the hurried, intense concentration of someone whose undeniable expectation is that very shortly he will be hanged.
Emily's story begins with the voyage from England to visit her father's deteriorating sugar estate, after which she is expected to return and, by arrangement, marry a middle-aged, well-to-do widower. The journey is recounted in detail and proves to be marked by extreme discomfort and a number of deaths including that of Isabella, Emily's companion and best friend. This is a nice touch by Mr. Phillips. Creating the almost unimaginable hardship of an ocean voyage as experienced by a privileged and paying passenger, he prepares the reader for the worst when, much later, Cambridge recounts his two hellish sojourns in slave ships.
Emily is a superb witness, one for whom all things in the Indies are legitimately new and whose journal is the appropriate place to record not only fresh impressions but also ideas and feelings. Almost an abolitionist at the outset, she never uncritically approves of slavery, but for various reasons she becomes more moderate in her disapproval. Emily recounts her months there and her impressions of the various white men of the estate -- Mr. McDonald, the doctor; Mr. Wilson, the failed former manager; and, above all, the brutal and somewhat enigmatic Mr. Brown (suddenly, later, to be known by her as Arnold), who has replaced Wilson. Brown is, aptly, a kind of Heathcliff in Emily's imagination. There are also a number of slaves whose lives impinge directly on hers, especially Stella, her maid and companion, and Christiania, who is believed to be a witch, an obeah (in American terms a conjure woman), but who is revealed, in Cambridge's account, to be a madwoman and his wife.
Before all is said and done, Emily is sorely tried, loses her illegitimate baby by miscarriage and is last seen in a state of suicidal despair. Her lover, Arnold Brown, has been murdered and Cambridge is hanged for the crime. No one, not Emily or Brown or even Cambridge, knows the whole truth. Only the reader is so privileged.
Emily's journal is more leisurely than Cambridge's account, which he is writing on the last night of his life. For each of them Mr. Phillips has created a plausible 19th-century writing style, slightly elevated and abstract, old-fashioned in its rhythms, literary echoes and, sometimes, allusions, and slightly, subtly different from each other. "Pardon the liberty I take in unburdening myself with these hasty lines," Cambridge begins, "but thanks be to God for granting me powers of self-expression in the English language." No question, he has powers and so does Emily. Yet it is typically paradoxical in this swiftly moving and adroitly told novel that these characters are shown to be at once gifted writers and, at the same time, prisoners of the language and rhetoric of their age. This paradox allows for ironies in both their stories -- those ironies that they themselves recognize and highlight, and those that the modern reader sees but for which the characters lack both words and awareness. Both are fully dimensional, credible characters whose perceptions of the world have authenticity and validity.
Their two voices dominate "Cambridge," but in fact there are four distinct voices. First and last there is the third-person narrator's voice, found in the brief, poetic prologue and epilogue. Likewise there is a third part of the central narrative, a very brief (three and a half pages) version of the climactic events of the story, told in a journalistic, semiofficial style. This section is important, for with its misapprehensions and misjudgments of both events and characters that we already know, it casts the shadow of doubt over the possibility of any "objective" account of the events and, more generally, questions the validity of any purely "factual" history. The truth lies within the whole of it -- in the cumulative imagination of the novel we read and experience.
Caryl Phillips is fascinated by the ways and means of storytelling and he is especially concerned with the creation of memorable characters. In "Cambridge" there is action aplenty -- sex, violence, beatings, madness, murder -- as, separately and equally, the Englishwoman and the displaced African find their sad endings. Events and ideas matter in this fictional world, but not as much as the humanity, with all its depths and nuances, of the characters. Mr. Phillips's artistry and integrity overwhelm all stereotypes.
Born in St. Kitts, raised in Britain, educated at Oxford and widely traveled, Caryl Phillips has proved himself among the best and most productive writers of his generation with plays and documentaries, three previous works of fiction (including "The Final Passage" and "Higher Ground") and his brilliant, tough-minded, prize-winning work of nonfiction, "The European Tribe." Now with "Cambridge" he takes a firm step toward joining the company of the literary giants of our time. CULTURES IN COLLISiON
The special challenge of writing a novel set in the past, Caryl Phillips says, "is to recover the mystery absent in most history, and to use the past to get at the heart of the mysteries in human behavior."
In a telephone interview from his office at Amherst College, where he is a visiting professor of writing, he said the most difficult part of his work on "Cambridge," set mostly on a Caribbean island in the early 19th century, wasn't the research but the effort required to get the voices of the two main characters right. "To begin a book I must first find characters who allow me access to their lives and who trust me to tell their stories."
The novel is largely narrated by Emily, a young Englishwoman, and Cambridge, an African educated in England before being condemned to slavery on a West Indian plantation. "I began by imagining a character who had grown up marginalized, as I had. But as I looked into the period, I discovered that women were a similarly marginalized group in England."
To catch the cadences and vocabulary of the 19th century, he said, "I began by reading period novels. That wasn't enough, so I turned to diaries and collections of letters. I found that a considerable number of personal narratives existed, written by English travelers to the Caribbean. All of that helped me to understand the language of the period, the attitudes that it shaped and reflected and the subtlety of statement common to the period."
That the human voice should have