Caryl Phillips’ 11th novel was published in hardback in 2015 and was reissued as a Vintage paperback in 2019 which is the edition I have just read. I know of but had not read St Kitts born Phillips’ work and was recently reminded of him by his valuable contributions to the BBC TV series “The Novels That Shaped Our World”.
It was the cover of this book that convinced me, a photograph from 1957 entitled “Southam Street, London” by Roger Mayne of a lone child which seems full of pathos and would have been part of the photographer’s documenting the changing face of London with the arrival of West Indian immigrants to British cities.
“The Lost Child” is based largely in a slightly later period than the photo around the Leeds area where Phillips grew up and London. It is, most successfully, a family tale of Monica Johnson who, when at Oxford University, meets a man described as a “foreigner”, of her relationship with her parents (who she deems more disapproving than they appear to be) and her two mixed-race children. It is the oldest boy Ben who I found myself really responding to and there is a middle section, where, in a first-person narrative he uses pop songs of the 1970s to frame his experience which is just excellent.
Alongside this thread of the Johnson family Phillips shifts back in time to Emily Bronte and the origins of her most famous character Heathcliff. As much as I love “Wuthering Heights” this is where unfortunately things fell down for me. The novel begins with a short section focusing on Heathcliff’s mother then onto the Johnsons for the bulk of the book with an interlude at Haworth and an ailing Emily and returning to her fictional characters right at the end. It doesn’t hang together properly and I wouldn’t have minded dispensing with the Bronte elements altogether because as it is (and I did find the idea initially appealing when I read the back cover) it seems a little tacked on and under-realised and it’s just not clear why it’s there.
Otherwise so much is strong. Phillips is very good at creating complex characters, especially here with Monica whose motives and actions are often questionable. He is also very good at understating events, some dramatic turns take place between sections but this is done so well I didn’t feel cheated. He gets the sense of period over very well and as a coming of age tale of a boy in the 1970’s this is pretty terrific. But, I sense the author’s vision was obviously a little different from this and that unsettles me.
I’ve pondered whether I am just making a minor quibble about a book I’d found moving and involving but I don’t think I am because it certainly left me feeling a little deflated on completion and the Brontes have certainly never done that to me before. I think the Earnshaws and the Johnsons just do not seem to mesh together here and giving the final sections to Heathcliff and co was certainly behind this sense of a let- down.
The Lost Child was first published in 2015. I read the 2019 Vintage paperback edition.