Review: The Lost Child, Caryl Phillips

Published in The Independent on Sunday on May 3, 2015

The Bronte sisters wrote fiction with an exceptionally vibrant afterlife: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and their characters still loom large, thanks to endless adaptations from prestige films to pop songs, and umpteen fictional re-writes, updatings, prequels and sequels.

The Lost Child seems to be the latest addition; a modern narrative is bookended by a sort of Heathcliff origins story, and interrupted by one chapter with a dying Emily Bronte. But in truth, this novel will offer very little succour for bonnet-lovers or fans of romantically windswept moors.

The bulk of The Lost Child takes place in Leeds and London between the 1950s and 1980s. Like Wuthering Heights, it follows several generations of a troubled family. But if Wuthering Heights is made memorable by its characters’ wild, anguished love and jealousy, the characters of Caryl Phillips’ book are repressed and depressed; they may be just as incapable of reconciliation, but it’s all buttoned-up Britishness and wasting away in bedsits. Phillips writes with acute insight into the smallness of lives lived on the breadline in a highly prejudiced, strictly stratified society – but, oh, it makes for a dour read.

Monica, an “oddly intense northern girl”, becomes estranged from her respectable family after marrying an Afro-Caribbean PhD student. He gets absorbed in the struggle for independence for his (unnamed) home in the West Indies; they have two children, but separate. Monica drifts, poor and friendless, back to Leeds, and eventually dates a man who will have a distressingly sinister impact on her family and her mental health.

Phillips’ pulls the reader slowly down a spiral of misfortune, but The Lost Child is never flashy or manipulative in its misery – tragic events are alluded to elliptically, or spelt out in passing. There are no histrionics between husbands and wives, parents and children – just heartbreaking silence, uncrossable distance. Phillips’ writing is also subtle on the matter of race: the prejudice Monica faces in marrying a black man, the bullying her sons receive for being mixed race, is only glancingly mentioned. It’s never a highlighted ‘issue’ or ‘theme’ – but it’s there alright.

And if we are attuned to it, it’s because of Phillips’ bookending: he takes the reference to Heathcliff as “dark-skinned” and runs with it, casting him as the son of Mr Earnshaw and a Congolese former slave. But while one can strain to find parallels between the stories, largely the Brontean framework feels tacked on. The two strands do not really enhance each other; we spend more time with Monica than with her own ‘lost’ boys, and she’s a curiously blank and bleak character. Wuthering Heights may be overblown in its gothic drama, but The Lost Child can be underwhelming, swirling down the plughole of its kitchen sink realism.

Where next?