STARRED REVIEW
March 2015

An enduring Brontë classic reimagined

By Caryl Phillips
Review by
It’s a favorite trick among literary novelists: use a classic work of literature as a launching pad for an investigation into favored themes. Jean Rhys did it with Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. J.M. Coetzee has done it twice, first in Foe, in which he reimagined Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman, and then, more daringly, in The Childhood of Jesus. Now essayist and playwright Caryl Phillips takes the work of a different Brontë—Emily—as the inspiration for his latest novel, The Lost Child.
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It’s a favorite trick among literary novelists: use a classic work of literature as a launching pad for an investigation into favored themes. Jean Rhys did it with Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. J.M. Coetzee has done it twice, first in Foe, in which he reimagined Robinson Crusoe from the perspective of a woman, and then, more daringly, in The Childhood of Jesus. Now essayist and playwright Caryl Phillips takes the work of a different Brontë—Emily—as the inspiration for his latest novel, The Lost Child.

In 1957, 20-year-old Oxford undergraduate Monica Johnson is set to give up her studies, much to her geography teacher father’s disappointment. She plans to marry Julius Wilson, a divorced grad student 10 years her senior, and follow him to the south coast of England. She does, and he gets a job at a polytechnic and founds a political organization devoted to anti-colonialism in his native West Indies.

Phillips intercuts the story of Monica, her two sons and her ensuing madness with scenes from Emily Brontë’s life. We see Brontë sick in bed, worrying along with the rest of the family about the fate of her brother, Branwell, and retreating into her imagination to work on a novel about a boy on the moors.

Despite the obvious parallels to Wuthering Heights—Monica is clearly meant to suggest a 20th-century Cathy—Phillips is too smart to simply put new clay on the same armature. He goes beyond the tale of Heathcliff and Cathy to create a biting commentary on empire and the vulnerability of family life. This is a devastating novel from one of our best writers.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Lost Child

The Lost Child

By Caryl Phillips
FSG
ISBN 9780374191375

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