Book of the week: Crossing the River

** – I wasn’t convinced

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993, Caryl Phillips fifth novel is one which ticks all the postcolonial boxes but fails to suck the reader in. No pun intended.

The book is separated into three sections, each telling the tale of an individual in someway travelling from their home country into the unknown, but spiritually bound together by their African ‘brotherhood’. So from the very outset we have postcolonial conspicuous micronarratives and a cheesy sense of holy familial ties – check.

The novel also hosts the quintessential ignorant-but-rich land owner, who fails to fully grasp the multi-faceted, more sensitive slave and native people of Africa. Throughout his account we find ample evidence of the postcolonial exotic other, check.

Stories within the book gravitate towards the moral that you can never go back to a pre-colonial era, an age of innocence or a place of childhood. Instead, characters must rough it out abroad – crossing the river to and from Africa – or die trying. There are diary entries of a sea adventurer who seems determined to travel whilst chucking half his slave cargo, dying of heartbreak or malaria or swine flu, over the side. So we have ample evidence of a depressing conclusion that fails to dwell on any possible positive outcome of our postcolonial age, check check.

In the final narrative the characters seem to gather increasingly multisided personalities. We meet Joyce, the book’s most feisty personality, who marries a shop owner in a much later WWII era and appears to rise to the challenge of going it alone. But even she is beaten by her husband in scenes akin to a diasporic Eastenders and the affair she has with a black soldier ends in heartbreak as he dies and she is forced to give up her baby.

Other critics, including that wonderful source of insight Wikipedia, have read Crossing the River as an optimistic novel which ends is showing that the African who crosses the river can, eventually, find a place on the other side. But, for me, Phillip’s fifth text still resounds with the overwhelmingly sentimental tone of ‘oh dearism’.

For a more rounded postcolonial novel which covers the issues of home, diasporas and nation with modern voices, read The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh. It’s set in India but faces many of the same issues as Caryl Phillips.

Crossing the River holds a bitter irony in its title. Its lack of interesting voices, intriguing situations and solid appeal ensured that now I’ve read the book there’s little chance of me crossing any bridges to go back to it again.


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