A Master of the Craft

October 2016

Caryl Phillips, The Lost Child (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015); 260 pages; ISBN 978-0374191375 (hardcover)

Though the work of Caryl Phillips is often read for its themes and plots, the author himself is a consummate stylist. The Lost Child, his superbly written tenth novel, rewards a reader who understands that its language and structure are in dialogue with other works of his and that they define the character of the text. Phillips’s nonfiction offers important clues as to direction. In “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket,” Phillips explains his preference for Baldwin’s early fiction, with its greater sense of structure to the “rather plotless drama” of Another Country. He also  prefers Baldwin’s early nonfiction for “the declarative structure of his voice.”1 It is a writer’s employment of form that attracts Phillips most. In his own fiction, it is clear that structure and prose style are at least as important as—if not more important than—character and plot.

 The Lost Child is intertextual with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: in his long essay “Leaving Home,” in The Atlantic Sound, Phillips writes, “[Heathcliff] was one of the first literary characters to seize my imagination.” Pointing out that there is no textual evidence of Heathcliff being a mixed-race child, Phillips declares, “It has seemed increasingly ironic to me that this ‘dark alien’ should find himself adrift in the streets of Europe’s major eighteenth-century slaving port.”2

In part, The Lost Child does just that, making Heathcliff the natural child of Mr. Earnshaw, who retrieves Heathcliff from Liverpool when his mother, Earnshaw’s former lover, dies. The story of Earnshaw and the boy he brings home with him (a huge journey for the boy) bookends the novel (section 1 and sections 9 and 10). Importantly, the final section is titled “Going Home,” which echoes “Homeward Bound,” the title of the second section of Phillips’s The Atlantic Sound. Phillips’s work as a whole is centrally engaged with the necessity in many lives (including his own) for long journeys (voluntary or not) that lead to entire reinventions of self. These journeys frequently involve the ocean.

The Lost Child has a number of journeys to follow. The mother of the boy who will be Heathcliff has survived both the Middle Passage to enslavement and a voyage to England as the plaything of the brutish captain. Then, the two main characters, Julius Wilson and Monica Johnson, are both migrants: Wilson across an ocean and Johnson across class. In the center of the text, the Brontë family endures Emily’s last days, in effect, her journey toward death. The impact of spatial mobility on a person’s life and character is truly the central theme of Phillips’s work.

Structure and voice are powerful elements in Brontë’s novel as in Phillips’s. Wuthering Heights is a powerful gothic tale; the highly dramatic action of the novel is filtered through Mr. Lockwood, the urbane, rational tenant who frames Nelly Dean’s account of the past, within which there are also other voices. Phillips’s filtering of narrative voices in The Lost Child may be usefully compared to those of Brontë in Wuthering Heights. Phillips’s “Lockwood” figure is the third-person narrator who tells the story of the mother of “Heathcliff,” then another voice takes on the narrative of Monica and Julius, as well as of the Brontë family. Section 6 in Phillips’s novel is made up of short pieces, told by Monica and Ronald’s son, Ben, in first person. Each piece is headed by the title of a popular song well known in Britain in the early 1970s (such as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”). The songs function as a commentary on this sort of teenage diary, as when Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” frames an account of Ben’s youthful heartache over a girl he thinks is really interested in his brother Tommy.

It is also very helpful to compare stylistic identities in the two novels; in each case, the style is fashioned to serve the narrative structure. So Brontë’s Lockwood, for example, speaks in balanced sentences, even when describing a highly disturbing dream: “I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane and rubbed it to and fro until the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes.”3 This prevents the gothic from becoming tackily lurid.

Brontë’s containment of terrible experience might be related to Phillips’s representation of rape: “His brutish appetite rose and fell like the ship, and at the termination of his cowardly attacks he would reshackle her and then reach for his pipe” (5). In both Brontë’s and Phillips’s novels, intensities are contained within formal boundaries; with regard to Phillips’s text, though, the question of whether they are a little bit too corralled at times might hover occasionally, such as when the particular horror visited on a captive African woman on a ship during the era of transatlantic slavery seems left behind rather fast as the narrative moves on to her present life in the city of Liverpool. We are not shown the brutal impact of two ocean voyages on this woman, nor do we witness her descent into an appalling existence, which she shares with her child. But that would have been another novel, one in which this woman was the center.

Phillips’s prose style is very deliberative, achieved, and varied. In The Lost Child the controlled nature of the prose is directly related to the effects of trauma on the characters we come to know. For example, Julius and Monica do not share a grand passion. He finds that her “quiet generosity and ability to listen ma[kes] him feel safe and anchored in England” (25). She does not want to talk about difficult aspects of her life with him. He marries her out of a sense of responsibility because his relationship with her has caused a rift with her family. They have two children despite his view that they cannot afford the second one. Then they split up when he returns to his unnamed Caribbean country to take up a university faculty position. So the controlled prose is appropriate to the subdued emotional tenor of the principal characters.

The novel closes with the Heathcliff story, and this time the woman of the opening section really comes to full life. There is once more a powerfully wrenching moment as the controlled Earnshaw first sees the woman’s naked back: “His heart fell when he saw she had been branded with the initials of another man” (231). Of course, it is only that his heart falls. Those who can tolerate a world in which their own safety and pleasures are bought with the sufferings of others cannot really be expected to be emotionally complex or deep. But Phillips empathetically represents the child who will grow up to be the emotionally damaged Heathcliff. This character, missing his just-dead mother and then abducted by a strange man, has eyes full of tears when he asks that he be not hurt. The supreme irony is that this stranger tells him, “We’re nearly home.” The story of Heathcliff in Brontë’s novel is of a man who never fully has a home, just as his love, Cathy, is imagined as a wandering spirit.

Phillips’s fictional craft grows more sophisticated from book to book. While there is room to critique the psychological shortcomings of the male characters in his body of work, he is nevertheless primarily a deeply thoughtful master of the art of fiction, especially in the case of the remarkable The Lost Child.


Elaine Savory teaches at the New School University. She has published widely on Caribbean and African literatures, especially women’s writing (notably that of Jean Rhys), poetry, drama, and literary history. She is also a poet. Her present projects include a memoir as well as monographs on the work of Kamau Brathwaite and on elegiac poetry and mass death.


1 Caryl Phillips, “James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket,” in Color Me English: Migration and Belonging Before and After 9/11 (New York: New Press, 2011), 241.

2 Caryl Phillips, “Leaving Home,” in The Atlantic Sound (New York: Vintage, 2001), 115.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (London: Penguin, 1995), 25.


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