- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

IN THE FALLING SNOW

By Caryl Phillips

Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages

Reviewed by Claire Hopley

With nine novels and three nonfiction works to his credit, Caryl Phillips has won acclaim as a chronicler of the African diaspora and its seeping legacy of racism and alienation. His latest novel, “In the Falling Snow,” looks at these issues through the life of a Keith Gordon, a university-educated black man with a reasonable middle-class job, a pleasant London apartment, an ex-wife, a troublesome teenage son and a much younger girlfriend.

Keith is on his way to her house when the reader meets him. She’s a colleague, and a sex interest rather than a love interest. When he decides to cool it, she publicizes their affair, and he is suspended from work. Frustrated by the politicking in his office and, frankly, no longer relishing his work, which has become increasingly bureaucratic, he eventually resigns. After all, he had long planned to write a book on popular music. Now, he reasons, he can put some serious effort into it. But though he gets out his notes and considers new ways to organize his material, progress is elusive.

Other things have not been going well, either. Three years earlier, his wife Annabelle threw him out after he confessed to the single one-night stand. Since then, he has become increasingly estranged from their son Laurie. Annabelle is now also having a hard time dealing with Laurie, and wants Keith to step in. But what is he to do?

Equally, what is Keith to do about his father? He still lives in the northern town where Keith was born and raised. He’s a taciturn survivor of spells in psychiatric hospitals, and he was never easy to get along with. Now Keith believes his father needs to be in the assisted-living facility where his best friend lives. His father won’t hear of it.

Keith thus shares the familiar dilemma of many 40- and 50-year-olds: simultaneous responsibility for aging parents and recalcitrant children at a time when his personal life is complicated by frayed relationships. His quandary is not, it seems, shaped by race; rather, it is the widely shared effect of the social and demographic changes of the late 20th century. But flashbacks to Keith’s earlier history suggest otherwise.

We see him being brought up by a white woman while his father is in a psychiatric hospital, only to be taken away from her several years later when his father is released. We watch as Annabelle befriends him at the university, and as her parents — especially her father — reject him as a son-in-law. We see him happily married to Annabelle, first as social workers in the north of England, then in London, where she switches to a media job.

The working-class boy winning his way to a university and emerging with a respected job and a middle-class wife is a British stereotype that Keith slots into, even though his race is an added dimension. Readers approaching the end of “In the Falling Snow” can therefore be forgiven if they imagine a resolution that restores connection between Keith and Laurie and Annabelle.

Or perhaps a more psychologically rewarding job will appear on the horizon, maybe even a publisher for his book. Instead, what happens is that his father suffers a heart attack, and in an unwonted unburdening of himself, delivers a long monologue about his life on a Caribbean island, his emigration to Britain, his thwarted hopes of studying the law, and his bitter disappointment with the cold, the pettiness, the hardness, the racism and the treachery he suffered in 1960s England.

This speech is a tour de force and, though the most striking, it is not the only part of this novel in which Mr. Phillips displays his considerable writing skills. His ear for speech is acute; his eye for the cityscapes of both London and the north of England is good; his sense of the history of England in the 1960s is sure and, most significantly, he has a dramatist’s talent for creating telling scenes and incidents. With all this, and despite a coherent and carefully handled plot, “In the Falling Snow” is less than the sum of its parts.

One reason for this is that is hard to believe that Annabelle as portrayed in the flashbacks to Keith’s early life is the unforgiving Annabelle who plays the role of aggrieved wife and mother. Such a rift in the characterization of a major character weakens the novel by raising questions about motivation.

More importantly, the generic expectations set up by a multitude of English novels on the theme of working-class boys making it — or not — in the middle-class world holds the stage for so long that the final monologue of Keith’s father, powerful though it be, comes as an arbitrary switch in mode rather than as a satisfying denouement. Significantly, although it gives Keith insight into his childhood, the monologue is not his story. It is the heartfelt and heart-wrenching biography of an immigrant in a strange and often harsh land.

In contrast, Keith was born and raised in England. His childhood was not easy; racism has always been part of his experience, but he had the education his father longed for, and the opportunities to fight the racism that dogged — and still dogs — the steps of black immigrants and their children. In other words, Keith is not without some success in life. Based on the tale told in “In the Falling Snow,” his alienation has less to do with his skin color than it has with conventionalized, middle-class, midlife angst.

As a novel about second-generation Afro-Caribbeans in England, “In the Falling Snow” offers insights and its narrative drive keeps readers reading. But its final switch into a different history disorients in a way that suggests Keith’s story got away from its teller.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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