November 2007

Three ordinary lives

By Caryl Phillips
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From novelist and playwright Caryl Phillips, an acclaimed voice on identity and race, comes another historical exploration, one that easily lands among his most timely and important work. The author of such works as Dancing in the Dark and A Distant Shore blends fiction and fact in his new novel Foreigners to tell the stories of three black men in Britain, whose struggles are both stirring and deeply human.

The West Indian-born Francis Barber, manservant of literary great Samuel Johnson, never quite finds social and financial success in 19th-century Britain, despite the apparent advantages bestowed on him by his benefactor. More than a century later, Randolph Turpin defeats Sugar Ray Robinson to take the world middleweight boxing title. But his constant battles with fans, foes and himself slowly wear him down and eventually lead to his ruin. Not so far away, in Leeds, David Oluwale arrives from Nigeria, determined to succeed. But a stint in jail and another in a mental institution chip away at his resolve and faith in people, and he finds himself living on the street. When two officers are convicted in his death, his name becomes a rallying point in the fight against police brutality and racist policing.

The three men's stories are sketched in mixed media: one minute Phillips is a journalist; the next, a novelist with a unique gift for voice; the next, a historian. Varying angles and points of view describe the visible and invisible, internal and external forces that assail his subjects. The result is not an exposition, but a detailed portrait from which to draw conclusions, an invitation to examine societal perceptions about modern belonging and a warning that all may not be as it seems.

Phillips, whose family emigrated to Leeds, England, from St. Kitts when he was an infant, describes later photographs of Randolph Turpin as showing a man who has visibly aged and whose face is tramlined with streaks of worry. And while Turpin, Barber and Oluwale are very different men, one imagines their faces bear similarities: lines of weariness and desperation, and the injuries one incurs from running into walls.


Jessica Inman writes and edits in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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By Caryl Phillips
ISBN 9781400043972

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