An old favourite rediscovered

Do you have books in a pile that you keep meaning to pick up and read but somehow seem to slip past as other books arrive for immediate attention?

In the Falling Snow by Caryl Phillips is one such. Since I love Caryl Phillips writing I am not sure why I didn’t get around to reading this until now since it was written in 2009 and I probably got it then.

Caryl Phillips writing is very straightforward, he does not pull any punches. Most of his books, if not all, deal with ordinary people who are coping with immigration. Either as immigrants themselves or as English people, especially in the Midlands and the North, who are coping with their own relationships with immigrants. Caryl Phillips himself comes from St Kitts and now lives in both London and New York.

scan0002In his novel, In the Falling Snow our protagonists are living in London. Keith and Annabelle are now living apart having been married for twenty-five years ever since leaving university. Keith has been a social worker but is presently out of work, or possibly on garden leave, after an unfortunate affair with a colleague which went viral when he broke it off.

Keith is himself what his school mates called a “halfie”. His father having left the Caribbean after the death of his own parents meets and has sexual relations with a young white girl, who falls pregnant just as Jamie has met and is about to marry Brenda. Keith has a strange and dislocated childhood, his own father does not live with his mother but with Brenda and while he is still very young he lives with his mother and her present partner, but when she dies this man brings Keith around to Brenda and her father and leaves him there.

Keith himself also marries an English, middle-class girl whose parents do not approve of the liaison and they have a teenage son Laurie. Laurie is proving extremely troublesome which necessitates uncomfortable parent evenings and interviews with the headmaster, and finally the local police station.

While all this is going on, Keith has his own parent problems as does Annabelle. Keith’s father lives alone in the North of England and he has to go up to visit him, which is depressing since his father is difficult and is clearly not managing well on his own. Annabelle’s mother is declining in a care home.

Between them, Keith and Annabelle are struggling with their own relationship, with parenting their difficult and surly son and with their own parent’s predicaments. These are ordinary people struggling with quite ordinary lives, we can all recognise them and their troubles. Caryl Phillips pinpoints the way in which larger themes can been seen through the lens of a smaller life; this is a poignant and troubled novel, written with elegant and subtle humour.

In another and much older book, A Distant Shore, Caryl Phillips points his lens at a very different situation. We learn over the length of the novel the “back story” of the two main characters Solomon and Dorothy. Dorothy has been required to take early retirement and has moved back to a new development in a midland town called Weston, where she grew up. The cul-de-sac in which she lives and a neighbouring cul-de-sac is perched above the main town, in the bungalow next to hers lives Solomon, the local handyman and caretaker/security officer, who also acts as a volunteer driver for the local health centre.scan0001

As we pass from Part I to Part II and so on, we gradually come to see what extraordinary circumstances have brought Solomon to England and who he has been before he became the man we have met so far. The same with Dorothy, a woman who has been married but is separated from her husband, Brian. Her liaisons get her into difficulties and finally she goes to live with her estranged sister, Sheila but there too, she is faced with the problems that are insurmountable. Eventually, her mind gives up the struggle and she ends up in a care home.

Again this is elegiac, subtle and thought provoking writing. We can identify with these people even if we do not in any way share their experiences.

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