Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Foreigners by Caryl Phillips presents three profiles of black men in England: Francis Barber, the servant and companion of dictionary creator Dr. Johnson; boxer Randy Turpin, who beat Sugar Ray Robinson for the world middleweight title in 1951; and David Oluwale, who’s 1968 racially-motivated killing by police scandalized Britain.
Although technically novellas, the main characters were real people and the profiles combine fiction with biography and journalism. The three pieces are united by the theme of “foreignness,” examining how each of the three men were outsiders in their worlds, but vary in their style and impact.
“Dr. Johnson’s Watch,” about Barber, is a formal, first person account. “Made in Wales,” about Turpin, is straightforwardly biographical. The final piece, “Northern Lights,” about Oluwale, entwines multiple narrative voices with excerpts from public records.
The lack of stylistic continuity – especially the radically different style of the last story – is distracting and weakens the thematic coherence of the book. I preferred the second piece. Turpin's rags-to-riches-to-rags story really dragged me in. On the other hand, the final story about Oluwale was too disjointed and abstract for my taste.
None of the profiles is fully sympathetic. The main characters are shown with all their faults and weaknesses, and from a historic perspective that distances the reader. While this adds to the idea that the three men are foreign from those around them, it lessens the reader’s ability to fully engage with the book.