Crossing The River


Unfortunately I couldn’t be at the last book  club in person, so as our rules dictate, I submitted a written review. Sometimes a written review can produce a more lucid and passionate take on the book as there are no influencing factors or in my case, I don’t get too carried away with the emotion of a meeting.

I actually like the process of putting my thoughts into writing for book club and often wish I did it more often as I feel my written reviews have more gravitas and eloquence (especially when read out by a BBC trained voice like Andrew’s)…

Crossing The River by Caryl Philips 

Score 8 out of 10

Slavery is one of those subject matters that elicits a complex response from me. As a child I remember clearly the TV mini series Roots adapted from Arthur Haley’s book, it was a powerful and I’m sure relatively sanitized take on slavery and its impact on generations of people. I recall the powerful feelings of loss and overwhelming guilt, thankful that I was never to be put in a situation like that.

The fact that our country was instrumental in facilitating the slavery trade had been conveniently glossed over for me growing up and it was only on digging deeper that I discovered the inconvenient truths of slavery as close to home as Harewood House — built on slave money.

I would really liked to have seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave as a companion piece to this book too: an unwaveringly brutal depiction of slavery in film seemed like a good counterpoint to this subtle and delicate book.

Right, on with the book.

First question: Is this a novel or a collection of short stories? The link between the stories was there, albeit tenuous, particularly in the final story, but nevertheless provided a central thread around which the stories could be woven.

The Pagan Coast was a heartbreaking story, full of melancholy pathos and desolation. I thought it was really interesting to explore the little known fact (at least to me) that when slaves had done their time they were ‘freed’ back to their ‘homeland’. That this freedom turned into a form of cruelty worse than slavery itself was deeply, sadly ironic. As the story unfolded through the correspondence of the child like Nash Williams and his moving story of his father seemingly turning his back on him, the sense of loss was palpable culminating in his loss of faith in both his father and God and ultimately death.

The big question for me here is just how did the Christians of that time balance their faith with the concept and reality of slavery?

The slave ship captain interlude was relentlessly harrowing. Amidst the tedious descriptions of wind, temperature, tides and day-to-day ship duties was the everyday nature of taking slaves. This was described as such a commonplace event that it chilled me to the bone: lives ruined forever, casual death and the business of slavery, not flashily horrific but routinely normal.

Martha’s story was no less tragic but perhaps more recognisable in the canon of slavery stories. It was again a numbingly tragic story of a life lived, owned and ruined by different people. The author made these feelings real for me and the most moving part was losing her daughter and then spending the rest of her life seeking her out. This was an emotionally raw story told tenderly and I liked how the author chopped the timelines — a common but effective ploy used throughout — to create anticipation and depth. Yet again the story ends in death and there is a palpable sense here that death brings freedom as in the first story.

Joyce’s story felt very different and I was impressed throughout with how the author had created authentic voices across the generations. The physical and emotional austerity of wartime Northern England was perfectly captured in this story. This was an unpalatable layering of hardship, heartbreak, cruelty, determination and tragedy — predictably ending in death.  Interestingly the story raised questions for me around who was the slave and who was free and I really liked that I was asking questions all the time as to who was black in the story, as Joyce never mentions the colour of skin.

So, was Crossing the River a metaphor for death or slavery? I’m not sure—it could be both. I have read somewhere that ‘The River’ was what slaves called the Atlantic. Interesting also to hear the phrase being ‘sold down the river’ or betrayed, being used in its original context as the buying and selling of people.

Ultimately, I found this a harrowing book; the author not afraid to leave things unresolved or introducing stark tragedy at every turn. If the intention is to leave no glimpse of light in the darkness, amidst the desperation of dislocated and shattered lives, then this book is a resounding success.

I’m left with the lingering feeling that there should be no positives whatsoever where this subject matter is concerned and I am convinced that books on slavery should be painful to read by their very nature.

My score does not in any way reflect my enjoyment of this book, but the lucid power of the narrative and the fact that I simply couldn’t look away and not be affected by the stories.

Can we read a comedy next?


One thought on “Crossing The River

  1. Lovely review Phil and you missed a great night as the book completely split opinion in the group which always makes for a good discussion. I personally didn’t get much out of the book and was left as I often am thinking about how I score and review a book, is it the themes that the book makes you think about or the writing and how that makes you feel. For me ultimately I wanted so much from the book and was left really disappointed, yes all the themes are there as you have painted and as you can imagine Andrew brought out on the night but but but it just didn’t work for me and if it hadn’t been for the necessity of having to read it for the club I would not have finished it. That in itself is why the book club is so great, so many opinions and interpretations of what we read.

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