Van has finished reading…Cambridge by Caryl Phillips

13 Jan

Having read Graham Swift’s excellent Making An Elephant recently, which features an interview with Caryl Phillips, I was delighted to come across a pristine hardback of Cambridge in a charity shop. Sometimes it’s hard to pin down the right word to describe the experience of reading a book. Enjoyable, while pertinent on a sort of technical level, simply doesn’t fit the overriding experience. The fact is it’s a distasteful read. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a distasteful read because it’s so eloquent, so honest, so accurate in its representation of the players involved in the story. I can’t even begin to unpick how difficult Emily might have been to write.
Here we have a lynchpin of historical fiction: a young woman on the cusp of entering what amounts to the pinnacle of her life, the sentence that is brokered marriage to a suitable husband. Before this happens she undertakes a voyage, and of course we understand this will expand her experience, her understanding of the World and of herself in many ways. Very early on we are aware this is a book about bondage, be it social, hierarchical or the actual trafficking and captivity of people.
With the microcosm of plantation life presented through the eyes of the daughter of plantation owner it’s easy to imagine how this book could have become a lean diatribe against the evils of slavery. In fact what we get is a finely balanced presentation of the ‘facts’ of that life through this young woman’s eyes. There was a question posed during the interview I read in Making An Elephant as to whether Caryl Phillips liked his protagonist. Having read the book I can understand the hesitancy that accompanied the answer. How can one like this protagonist given the views that she holds? Albeit these views are something to an extent bequeathed to her by the distance she has from them, by the lack of experience or relation to them. The things she says are abhorrent – I found it hard not to grit my teeth through sections of this book – and yet something works on you. Something lingers and above all else I found myself hoping for her, wanting for her something like that knowing Hollywood epiphany that would of course have utterly ruined the story. I think perhaps deep down it’s the questioning she was prepared to undertake; the fact that she held utterly to the belief that the owners should at the very least be responsible for the things (yes, I believe that’s how she would have thought of the people in her father’s ‘employ’) they owned.
The sadness of Cambridge’s tale is unrelenting, the lesson true in that no matter how he tried he was ultimately doomed. By far the most disturbing section is that which seems to constitute an ‘official opinion’ on what came to pass. What is presented is so clearly a convenient interpretation that it even descends to the level of descriptions of the moon and the scenery in a place where only one man – a man who is no longer in a position to confirm or deny matters – is reported to be waiting alone. Who is there to witness such testimony but that blindest of judges, self-interest?
In the end there is no-one who can escape unscathed, except for those who kept themselves at arm’s length from it all and reclined on the distant profits.

Rather than a good book, perhaps it’s truer to say this is an angry and desperately sad book. You should make space on your shelf for it, nonetheless. It’s a captivating read.

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