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  • Written by Caryl Phillips
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  • A Distant Shore
  • Written by Caryl Phillips
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Written by Caryl PhillipsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Caryl Phillips


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42432-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Dorothy is a retired schoolteacher who has recently moved to a housing estate in a small village. Solomon is a night-watchman, an immigrant from an unnamed country in Africa. Each is desperate for love. And yet each harbors secrets that may make attaining it impossible.
With breathtaking assurance and compassion, Caryl Phillips retraces the paths that lead Dorothy and Solomon to their meeting point: her failed marriage and ruinous obsession with a younger man, the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in his disintegrating native land, and the cruelty he encounters as a stranger in his new one. Intimate and panoramic, measured and shattering, A Distant Shore charts the oceanic expanses that separate people from their homes, their hearts, and their selves.


England has changed. These days it’s difficult to tell who’s from around here and who’s not. Who belongs and who’s a stranger. It’s disturbing. It doesn’t feel right. Three months ago, in early June, I moved out here to this new development of Stoneleigh. None of the old villagers seem comfortable with the term “new development.” They simply call Stoneleigh the “new houses on the hill.” After all, our houses are set on the edge of Weston, a village that is hardly going to give up its name and identity because some developer has seen a way to make a quick buck by throwing up some semi-detached bungalows, slapping a carriage lamp on the front of them and calling them “Stoneleigh.” If anybody asks me I just say I live in Weston. Everybody does, except one or two who insist on writing their addresses as “Stoneleigh.” The postman told me that they add “Weston” as an afterthought, as though the former civilises the latter. He was annoyed, and he wanted me to know that once upon a time there had been a move to change the name of Weston to Market Weston, but it never caught on. He was keen that I should understand that there was nothing wrong with Weston, and once he started I could hardly get him to stop. That was last week when he had to knock on the door for he had a package that wouldn’t fit through the letterbox, and he said that he didn’t want to squash it up (“You never know what’s in it, do you, love?”). He told me that he had been instructed by head office to scratch out the name “Stoneleigh” if it appeared on any envelopes. Should the residents turn out to be persistent offenders, then he was to politely remind them that they lived in Weston. But he told me that he didn’t think that he would be able to do this. That actually if they wanted to live in cloud-cuckoo land, then who was he to stop them? He didn’t tell this to his boss, of course, because that would have been his job. There and then, on the spot.

So our village is divided into two. At the bottom of the hill there is a road that runs west to the main town which is five miles away, and east towards the coast which is about fifty miles away. Everybody knows this because just before you enter Weston from the town side there’s a sign that says it’s fifty miles to the coast. Then after that there’s the big sign that reads “Weston” and announces the fact that we are twinned with some town in Germany and a village in the south of France. In the estate agent’s bumf about “Stoneleigh” it says that during the Second World War the German town was bombed flat by the RAF, and the French village used to be full of Jews who were all rounded up and sent to the camps. I can’t help feeling that it makes Weston seem a bit tame by comparison. Apparently, the biggest thing that had ever happened in Weston was Mrs. Thatcher closing the pits, and that was over twenty years ago.

The only history around these parts is probably in the architecture. The terraces on both sides of the main road are typical miners’ houses, built of dull red brick; the original inhabitants would have had to bathe in the kitchen, and their toilets would have been at the end of the street. However, these houses have all long since been replumbed, and the muck has been blasted off the faces of most of them so that they now look almost quaint. Mind you, the people who live down there still have to deal with the noise of the traffic at all times of day and night, and I imagine it’s murder to keep the windows clean. Besides the terraced houses there’s a petrol station, a fish-and-chip shop, a newsagent-cum-grocery store, a sub-post office that opens three mornings a week, and behind the far row of houses a pub that sits smack on the canal, which runs parallel to the main road. There’s also a small stone church, with nicely tended grounds, but I won’t be needing to go in there. Stoneleigh is up a short steep hill and it overlooks the main road. We’re the newcomers, or posh so-and-sos, as I heard a vulgar woman in the post office call us. There are not that many of us, just two dozen bungalows arranged in two culs-de-sac, but there are plenty of satellite dishes, and outside some of the houses there are two cars. Me, I don’t drive. We don’t have any shops up here, so if I do want anything I have to trek down the hill to the newsagent-cum-grocery store. Either that or catch the bus the five miles into town.

In May, I retired as a schoolteacher. Four years ago the school went comprehensive and since then standards have plummeted. It left me in a bit of a spot as I’ve spent most of my life banging on about how it would be better if kids of all levels and backgrounds could be educated together and learn from each other. It’s what Dad believed. He hated seeing the grammar-school boys in their white shirts and ties, and their flash blazers, while the kids from the secondary modern could barely find a pair of socks that matched. I can still see him shaking his head and pointing. “Class war, love,” he’d say. “Class war before they’re even out of short pants.” And then four years ago, the education authority scrapped grammar schools, turned us comprehensive, and they put me to the test. I was suddenly asked to teach whoever came into the school—we all were. Difficult kids I don’t mind, but I draw the line at yobs. But then early retirement came along to save me, and when I saw the Stoneleigh advert in the paper I thought, why not, a change is as good as a rest. Four weeks later, I found myself standing at the door to this place and handing the removal men a twenty-pound tip. I watched the dust rise and then slowly cloud as their big van pulled away. It was only six o’clock and so I thought that rather than sort through my belongings and arrange everything, I’d wander down the hill and take a good look around.

I was surprised by how busy the main road was, with big lorries thundering by in both directions. It took a good while before there was a break in the traffic and I was able to dash across. As it turned out there was not much to see, except housewives sitting on their front steps sunning themselves, or young kids running around. Doors were propped wide open, presumably because of the heat, but I didn’t get the impression that the open doors were indicative of friendliness. People stared at me like I had the mark of Cain on my forehead, so I pressed on and discovered the canal. It’s a murky strip of stagnant water, but because I was away from the noise of traffic, and the blank gawping stares of the villagers, it looked almost tolerable. The skeletal remains of a few barges were tied up by the shoreline, and it soon became clear that the main activity in these parts appeared to be walking the dog. In the fields, the cows and sheep moved with an ease which left me in no doubt that, despite the public footpath that snaked across the farmer’s land, this was their territory. I sat on a low wall underneath some drooping willow branches and looked around. The soft back-lap of the canal was soothing, although the jerky flight of a dragonfly buzzing about my head seemed out of place. This wall belonged to the village pub, The Waterman’s Arms, whose garden gave out onto the canal. In the garden some young louts and their girlfriends were braying and chasing about the place. I watched them as they began to toss beer at each other, and then shriek with the phlegmy laughter of hardened smokers. I didn’t want them to think that I was staring at them, so I turned my atten- tion back to the relative tranquillity of the dank canal, and so time passed.

As the sun began to set, and the second dead fish floated by, the silver crescent of its bloated stomach gracelessly breaching the surface, I decided that I would quite like a drink. My throat was parched, and so I stood up and walked towards the pub. I could now feel eyes upon me, and for a few moments I wondered if some of these slovenly youngsters, with their barrack-room language, weren’t pupils that I’d recently had the rare pleasure of teaching. However, I thought it best not to turn and look them full in the face, and I therefore made my way, without an escort and with eyes lowered, across the garden and up the half-dozen stone steps and into the public bar. Once inside I discovered that the small room was deserted, save for a courting couple snug in the corner, whose feverishly interlaced fingers suggested what was to come.

“Can I help you, love?” Despite the heat, the landlord was wearing a white shirt and a tie that suggested membership of some kind of club. He kept the place neat and tidy, and he’d decorated the walls with what looked like family photos and mementoes of his holidays. This stout man’s private life was on display, and I imagined that the young couple in the corner might well be holding back their enthusiasm out of respect for this fact.

“I’ll have a half of Guinness, please.” As the landlord carefully pulled the beer, I heard a loud cry and yet more jackalling from outside. The landlord glared through the leaded windows.

“Bloody hooligans.” Without looking in my direction he set the half-pint of Guinness before me. “One pound forty.” He continued to stare through the window, but his open hand snaked across the bar. I put two one-pound coins into his palm and his hand first bounced, as if to weigh the coins, and then it closed around them. “Thanks, love.”

An hour later I adjusted myself on the bar stool as he set a second half-pint before me. It was dark now, but the youngsters were still making their noise in the garden, and in the corner behind me the courting couple had set aside decorum and were now practically sitting one on top of the other. Having finished my first drink I had stood up from the stool, but the landlord would hear nothing of my leaving. “No, love, have one on the house. Call it a welcome if you like.” I still had to unpack, and the removal men had left the place in a tip, but I thought it would be rude to turn down his kind offer. I climbed back onto the stool and watched as he pulled the second glass.

From the Hardcover edition.
Caryl Phillips|Author Q&A

About Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips - A Distant Shore

Photo © Michael Eastman

Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, West Indies, and brought up in England. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. His novel Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and an earlier novel, A Distant Shore, won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. His other awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and currently lives in New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Caryl Phiullips

Q: A Distant Shore is your seventh novel, the latest addition to a body of work that Time Magazine recently called "one of literature's great meditations on race and identity." How does this novel further these themes in your work?
I think the more you write and publish, the clearer it becomes just what your territory is. I'm more concerned with 'identity' than with 'race.' The latter is just one component in the former, along with religion, gender, nationality, class etc. This is obviously a novel about the challenged identity of two individuals, but it's also a novel about English—or national—identity.

Q: Unlike your previous novels, A Distant Shore is set in the present day. Did specific news events compel you to write a contemporary novel?
There was no specific news story, but one couldn't help but be aware of the debate about asylum seekers in Europe during the past few years. I noticed that a lot of the pejorative language used to describe them was similar to that applied to immigrants of my parents’ generation. I've always felt that I would write a contemporary novel when the right subject-matter presented itself. And, of course, the right characters. I am still deeply committed to the notion of 'history' being the fundamental window through which we have to peer in order to see ourselves clearly.

Q: One of the book's main characters, an aging white Englishwoman named Dorothy, seems lost in her own country, like she doesn't know the rules anymore now that immigrants are so much a part of her daily life. Why did you choose to give her one of the major voices in the book?
Well, she demanded attention. The complexity of her life, and the corrosion that she was suffering, drew me in. A supposedly quiet, almost anonymous, life, yet one filled with drama and internal anguish. Like so many people out there.

Q: The other major perspective in the book is that of Gabriel, a black African man who journeys to England to escape horrors in his homeland. You've traveled to Sierra Leone, officially the poorest nation in the world and also one of the most violent in Africa. Is his character based on people you met on that trip?
No, I went to Sierra Leone after the book was published in England. I didn't base Gabriel's character, background, or journey on any particular African country. However, I did have in mind, Rwanda, Liberia, the Congo, and Sierra Leone. I have traveled pretty extensively in sub-Saharan Africa, but I've (wisely, I think) tried to avoid war-torn zones. But one reads,
listens, observes.

Q: Dorothy and Gabriel form an unlikely friendship. What does their relationship signify about cultural shifts in England?
Well their friendship is tentative, full of anxiety, riddled with doubt, self-doubt, and
conducted under the full and judgmental scrutiny of people who are quick to condemn. This being the case, I don't think there has been much cultural shift in England. People continue to be uptight about miscegenations of all kinds—sexual, religious, class 'transgressions' are still frowned upon. It's still hard to be friendly to the 'other' in many parts of England.

Q: The book is structured chronologically backwards, so that readers learn immediately of Dorothy and Gabriel's friendship, and are then taken back in time to learn how their very different lives came to intersect. Why did you decide to use this format?
It just seemed to be the best way to tell the story. I wanted to give out the idea that this
cautious friendship was actually forged by degrees; painful degrees, as two people from very different backgrounds tip-toed towards each other.

Q: Early on in the story, Gabriel is murdered by a group of white teenagers after he settles in their town. Why did you choose to end his life that way?
There is still a lot of racial violence in English life—both officially and unofficially. The statistics for racially-motivated murder—or hate crimes—in England are shameful. It seems to me quite likely that a man such as Gabriel, in a village such as the one described in the book, might conceivably meet such a tragic end.

Q: You grew up in northern England, where you were one of the few black people in a white working class town. Have you been back to your hometown to see whether it has changed?
I've been back to Leeds many times. The city has changed enormously. It's now economically buoyant, confident, and even trendy. There's a lot of nightlife, the club scene is good, and there is great shopping. The place is buzzing. However, the part of Leeds where I grew up is still struggling with social problems, including racism. There are still few non-white faces, and those that walk the streets are subjected to much abuse. So, like most cities, the place has a public face and a private face. The public face is certainly rosier than it was when I was a boy, but the private face is just as sinister.

Q: Films like “Bend It Like Beckham” and “East is East” show an England where kids mix among different cultures more easily. Is this the case?
Well, both films didn't shy away from an albeit tentative exploration of racial problems. However, London (the setting for 'Bend it Like Beckham') is not a city that you can use as a barometer for the rest of England. (It's similar here in New York - i.e. it's difficult to make any judgments about the USA based on NYC). Kids in the inner-city areas do mix more readily than those from rural or suburban backgrounds, but the vast majority of England is not 'inner city'. And even in the inner-city one still sees many problems.

Q: Would these films even have been made when your parents came to England from the West Indies four decades ago?
No, they would not have been made. Nobody was interested in the story of people who were 'foreign' in that most obvious way—i.e. racially different. These 'new' films are about people who are curiosities; i.e. British AND 'foreign.' The fact that these youngsters are both participating in, AND standing apart from, British life makes them objects of curiosity. Their parents—my parents—were always configured by the politicians and the media as a 'problem' that might one day go away.

Q: After you graduated from Oxford, you met the writer James Baldwin, who greatly
influenced your life. Tell us about your friendship with him. What writer would have the same impact on a young black man today?
I was very lucky to get to know a writer as generous as James Baldwin. He was the first writer I knew, and I watched him 'handle' the pressures of being a public figure. It's not something I would wish upon any writer! I very quickly understood how important it is to guard one's privacy and keep focused on the work. I understood that the literary world is subject to the vagaries of fashion, the poison of money and celebrity, and all of it means nothing when set against the legacy of the work. I'm not sure who would serve such a role in Britain today. There are young women like Zadie Smith who I'm sure are encouraging a new generation to think of literature as an option.

Q: You've written about the recent 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. What is the significance of this anniversary to you?
The anniversary reminds one of how far we've fallen in such a short space of time. From the eloquence of that speech to a president who debases his office with utterances such as 'Bring them on.' Language is vital and precious. It dignifies us.

Q: In addition to books, you've written plays, movies (Merchant-Ivory's The Mystic Masseur), TV dramas and radio scripts. Are you working on a film project now?
I'm not very good at talking about what I'm working on. I am doing a film for the BBC, but who knows if it will come to fruition.

Q: You constantly travel around the globe, have ties in England, St. Kitts and New York. Getting to your own issues of identity, who do you root for during the Olympics?
I root for individual athletes. I'm very suspicious of nationalism of all kinds, including sporting nationalism. However, when it comes to team sports, I suppose I still have a soft spot for England. It's where I grew up and went to school. But I've lived in the United States for nearly fourteen years, and I feel increasingly a part of this society. I can see how I've changed and grown here, and I'm happy to have had this opportunity.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“Provocative. . . . His novels have a way of . . . staying with you long after you’ve closed the book.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Rich and deeply affecting. . . . With the elegance and maturity of a prize-winning author . . . Phillips lives, breathes, and masterfully teases into prose the singular dilemma of the outsider.” –The Boston Globe

“A powerful contemporary fable about cultural clashes and individual yearnings . . . told with a cool restraint.” –The Baltimore Sun

“Compellingly readable. . . . Impossible to pull away from. . . . [Phillips] has demonstrated a remarkably fluent ability to inhabit characters whose perspectives on life differ radically from his.” –Los Angeles Times

“Astonishing. . . . Chilling. . . . A Distant Shore marks new heights in this author’s narrative accomplishments.” –The Miami Herald

“Suspenseful, atmospheric, adventurous.” –The Independent

“A devastatingly sad, powerful work of displacement, loneliness and racism.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“A page-savourer. . . . The plot is teased out with all the supple control of a superb craftsman in his prime. . . . A remarkable and penetrating novel.” –The Times (London)

“Graceful and dizzying. . . . A novel of failed grasps at redemption and horrors that reduce characters to madness, murder, and incoherent grief.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“A distillation of everything that makes Phillips’ work so impressive: lucid, deceptively simple prose combined with huge ideas and complex emotion. . . . Arguably his most accomplished work to date.” –Time Out (London)

“Intriguing. . . . Transcend[s] limitations of time and place. . . . [Phillips’] use of descriptive detail and subtle symbolism is achingly on point.” –Black Issues Book Review

“Just the sort of writing that reminds us how vital fiction can be.” –The Herald (Glasgow)

“Hums with ambition. . . . You can’t help but admire Phillips’ desire to explore . . . one of the great unexamined tragedies of our time.” –The Guardian


NOMINEE 2003 Man Booker Prize
WINNER 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book
FINALIST 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

  • A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips
  • March 08, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9781400034505

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