The very first sentence of the novel—"England has changed” (3)—points to Phillips’s new focus. Where previous novels explore the fragmented and fractured identities of the British Empire’s former subjects, this novel turns to investigating the mental make-up of the former colonial power itself. It does so through contrasting the black immigrant’s perspective with that of an insider, an elderly woman who increasingly comes across as a bit of an anachronism herself. A Distant Shore deals with the effect of these changes, changes in ethnic composition as well as in social and moral outlook.
Dorothy Jones, a woman in her early 50s, is a retired teacher of music. After her parents’ deaths she returns to the northern town in which she grew up and moves into a small house on a new housing estate on the periphery of the old town. Her situation is very much reflected in her circumstances of living, and from the very beginning of the novel the reader is aware of Dorothy’s ambivalent stance towards old and new, past and present: "I thought to myself, I’m glad that I live in a cul-de-sac. There’s something safe about a cul-de-sac. You can see everything when you live near the far end of a cul-de-sac” (10).
Dorothy’s sense of herself is shaped by a past she would like to forget: her upbringing by a narrow-minded and autocratic working-class father, an unsuccessful marriage ending with a short note on the kitchen table when her husband leaves her to live with somebody else, the break with her sister Sheila who feels betrayed by Dorothy’s lack of understanding and solidarity when she comes to her for help, their tentative reconciliation when Sheila is dying of cancer, the enforced early retirement after an aborted affair with a colleague who accuses her of harassment. Dorothy’s new home is meant as a new beginning, close enough to her origins to be comfortably familiar, yet up on the hill, on the periphery, to allow for a bit of breathing space.
However, Dorothy’s expectations do not come true. Her new life is too solitary and uneventful for her liking. Her only comfort is Solomon Bartholomew, who lives next door and who is also an outsider to the community. Solomon, a quiet black African, is the night-watchman of the housing estate. Dorothy senses that he is as lonely as she is:
One day, Solomon offers to drive Dorothy into town for her regular doctor’s appointment. This is the beginning of a tentative yet short-lived friendship. 50 pages into the novel, the reader and Dorothy learn that Solomon is dead, having been mugged by a group of local racists. We are even told how the deed was committed as one of Dorothy’s piano pupils confesses to her that she has been party to the abduction, beating and subsequent drowning of Solomon. The situation seems familiar enough, and, clearly, it is not the criminal aspect of the case that interests Caryl Phillips.
The novel is divided into five parts and told with an alternating focus; the first, third and fifth part belong to Dorothy, the second and fourth part focus on Solomon and his perceptions. While parts I, IV, and V focusing on the narrative present are rather straightforward first-person narratives, parts II and III, the parts that actually provide the reader with biographical information about the past of the two protagonists, employ a mixture of narrative voices, first-person and third-person with strong figural focalisation, thus emphasising the uncertain status of the information relayed and raising questions about the reliability of the protagonists’ versions of their past. The fact that the text starts with the murder forces the reader to work his or her way backwards into the story reconstructing the protagonists’ lives in the process.
Phillips develops the two characters and their voices with great care. Dorothy’s moves to cover up and justify even those decisions to herself that retrospectively she feels guilty and ashamed about, her flights into fantasy, her cautious attempts to establish a relationship with Solomon without violating his privacy, her very mixture of self-righteousness and timidity establish her as a complex human being. To evoke compassion for a, at first glance, rather unremarkable and not particularly likeable character is no minor achievement.
Solomon’s voice is equally distinct; his mode of expression slightly dated, his tone overly polite, at times, to the point of appearing stilted. We first meet him in part II, although we do not recognise him at first as his name at this stage is Gabriel. He is in prison having been arrested as an illegal immigrant and also under the threat of being charged as a sexual offender. Gabriel’s cell-mate, another refugee, is dying and Gabriel fears that his own flight to Britain might have been futile: "After being in this cell for an hour, Gabriel is resigning himself to the fact that in all likelihood he will be sent back to Africa. All the money, and the sacrifices of the journey may have come to this. To be locked up in a prison cell with a sick man who like himself is a refugee in England. A man whose life also seems to have run aground” (188).
Part II of the novel introduces the reader to fragments from Gabriel’s past: living as part of a minority in an unnamed African state, joining the rebel army in a civil war, observing the torture and massacre of his sisters and parents, committing murder himself to acquire the money needed to leave the country after the obliteration of his family, the desperate and difficult journey to Europe, illegally entering Britain hanging on the side of a channel ferry, and, finally being arrested after only a few days in England. Gabriel’s flight is motivated by a picture of England as a benevolent and caring nation: "‘But you must try and reach England. They are friendly and will give you food and shelter. We are not welcome in France [...].’” (118). The contrast between Gabriel’s hopeful naivety and his experiences in Britain could not be greater.
Gabriel who changes his name to Solomon after his release from prison is conceived as the prototypical refugee turned immigrant, a representative of the countless immigrants and asylum seekers traumatised by a past full of violence and destruction and a present informed by suspicion and rejection. Although I can imagine why Phillips probably decided against describing his African protagonist’s country of origin in any detail, I found the lack of information problematic as it seems to make Solomon too much of a representative. In a similar way, his experiences on entering Britain, from being arrested and charged with sexual offence, suffering the warders’ ignorance and brutality in prison, being dependent on a prejudiced lawyer, meeting fraudulent countrymen after his release from prison, to meeting the lorry driver who is to become his friend and benefactor seem too much for an individual life thus undermining the credibility of the fragile bond that develops between Dorothy and Solomon. Whereas in previous novels Phillips set out to individualise his characters, Solomon comes across as something like a verbal monument—a noble gesture, yet it leaves the novel somewhat unbalanced.
most impressive achievement in this novel beside creating a character
like Dorothy and taking up the cause of the unknown migrant or refugee
is his handling of time and his illustration of the painful process
of remembering. In Dorothy’s narrative the confused and confusing
time-scale reflects her reluctance to remember as well as her attempts
to cover up what she sees as personal failures. In the third and
fifth part the slippage in the narrative is also indicative of an
increasingly distraught mind, as much a reaction to the murder as
a result of her rejection of the changes she sees everywhere around.
Dorothy and Solomon have a strong notion of propriety—this
and their vulnerability binds them together. Phillips’s interest
in his two protagonists does not lie in depicting the development
of their unlikely friendship, nor in providing the reader with a
glimpse of racial harmony or reconciliation. His protagonists are
both refugees from their past lives and their memories of those
lives while, at the same time, being inescapably bound to and shaped
by their past. Both are also victims of their preconceived notion
of England as the England they knew (Dorothy) and believe in (Solomon)
turns out, at best, to be a distant shore. This is why Dorothy turns
against her own country and withdraws into her mind. "My heart
remains a desert, but I tried. I had a feeling that Solomon understood
me. This is not my home” (312).