A vision of two centuries of the African diaspora, Crossing the River is essentially a novel made up of four short stories bound together by one voice and shared experience.
Severed from their homeland, the ‘many-tongued chorus’ of common memory, history and experience is presented through the narratives of Phillips’ exceptional novel as, through the failure of his crops, a father is forced into a ‘desperate foolishness’ to sell his children – Nash, Martha and Travis – into slavery.
Adopting a different narrative style for each story, the three children represent a voice of the passing of time and history, the intertwined generations of victims of colonisation of slavery. Yet, interestingly, only Martha is the direct voice. Nash and Travis are presented as central characters in the stories of others.
Nash is the only one to return to Africa – as a Christian missionary and member of the American Colonization Society. In receipt of a Christian education, courtesy of his master Edward Williams, Nash is sent to Liberia to carry the message of God to the ‘pagan coast’. Only Nash has seemingly disappeared, forcing Williams to travel to the west coast of Africa to find for himself the truth of the matter. A mix of Nash’s letters to his master and Williams’ own narrative drive the story forward as the white American reflects on the (very different) world around him.
Martha travels in the opposite direction. Sold many times over and torn from her family, as an old woman she is heading west to California as a member of the exclusively black pioneers to find her daughter, Eliza Mae. But she is too sick to travel, worn down as she is by a life of intense hardship: Martha is slowing down the rest of the wagon train.
A change of century and change of geography as a Yorkshire village on the outskirts of Sheffield finds Travis, a black GI, in a relationship with the married Joyce. Her husband is in prison for selling rationed goods on the black market.
The Brits were suspicious of the ‘Yanks’ with the onset of World War II, doubly so when entire regiments were black. Village gossip is rife, but Joyce makes it very clear she cares nothing for bigotry and the word of her neighbours, even when Len returns from prison. Joyce gives birth to a son, but Travis is killed in the last days of the war having never seen his child.
Sandwiched between the stories is the captain’s log and private letters of Captain James Hamilton of the Duke of York, 1752 and the several months his ship lay off the African coast collecting human cargo to transport ‘across the river’. It is Hamilton who was ‘approached by a quiet fellow. Bought 2 strong man-boys and a proud girl.’
As a singular novel, Crossing the River is fractured in its narrative, language and characterisation – the staccato reflections of Joyce in pre-war Yorkshire as opposed to the florid language of Nash to his letters to his master in early 19th century. Yet it is this very sense of fractured and fragmented disconnectedness that perfectly characterises the upheaval and experience of two centuries of slavery, racism and bigotry. Its themes are big, yet its stories are ‘small’ and humane.
Crossing the River was, unfortunately, shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. Not only was it following on from the 1992 winning novel, Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, a novel exploring the dichotomy of the slave trade and Christian values in late 18th century Britain, but it also found itself shortlisted by a panel that decided humour was the order of the day. Thus, Crossing the River and David Malouf’s equally superb Remembering Babylon were both overlooked in favour of the abysmal Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.