Voyage Into Unknown Territory

THE FINAL PASSAGE by Caryl Phillips, New York: Penguin, 205 pp., $7.95 paper

ORIGINALLY published in Great Britain in 1985, ``The Final Passage'' is the first novel of a young author who has since written two more works of fiction - ``A State of Independence'' (1986) and ``Higher Ground'' (1989) - as well as a nonfiction survey of racial attitudes among various members of ``The European Tribe'' (1987).

Born on the West Indian island of St. Kitts in 1958, Phillips was taken to England as an infant when his family emigrated there that same year. He grew up in the industrial city of Leeds, went on to study at Oxford, and wrote for television, radio, and film. Visiting America and his Caribbean birthplace (where he now lives) fueled his desire to explore his ethnic origins as a writer.

His first novel attempts to recreate what Phillips was too young to have taken in at the time it was happening to him: the frightening, complex, exciting, and profoundly disorienting experience of emigration. But in this book, Phillips is less interested in the simple shock of the new than in the underlying, longer-lasting state of uncertainty that prevents many emigrants from ever feeling properly at home.

With her recently born child in her arms and an unpredictable, troublesome husband in tow, the 19-year-old heroine, Leila, leaves the beauty, poverty, stagnation, and comforts of her native island for the chilly risks of England. She will, of course, encounter the usual problems: a cold, drab cityscape; urban alienation; subtle - and unsubtle - racism; and sheer loneliness. A prisoner of her own prejudices as well as a victim of other people's, Leila even comes to doubt the simple friendship of a neighborly white woman because she has convinced herself (with a little help and evidence from her ever-errant husband, who in no time has found an eager blonde) that no white woman can resist the allure of a black man.

The focus of this novel is not so much on Leila's attempts to adjust to life in England (although this part of the story is handled convincingly) as on the tangled web of motivations - personal, familial, economic, and social - that propelled this young woman on a voyage to unknown territory. Indeed, most of the story takes place on the West Indian island where Leila has grown up. The sleepy, circumscribed life of the poor gives rise to the stirrings of dissatisfaction that lead the more restless islanders to leave: ``Ambition going teach you that you going has to flee from beauty,'' as one old man puts it. Leila is somewhat ambitious, but she is also dissatisfied in her marriage, looking for a change, but uncertain about what she is looking for.

Phillips draws his characters like a dramatist, revealing their strengths and flaws through their actions rather than through description. With a cool detachment that barely seems to lay a glove on the man, Phillips gives us a devastating portrait of Leila's fianc'e (later, her husband) Michael Preston, who's already impregnated one woman, whom he continues to see while wooing the prettier, better-educated Leila, dazzling her with rides on the motorbike bought for him by the first woman (who could ill afford it). Leila has vaguely heard of this other woman and her baby, but with the arrogance and naivet'e of youth, she convinces herself that they don't count.

``The Final Passage'' looks below the surface to provide a cleareyed portrait with little sentimentality, but a great deal of empathy. But it also has the weaknesses of a first novel: overwritten descriptions of scenery and a tendency to go in circles, making the same points over and over rather than moving toward a resolution or revelation (true, the circularity is intentional, an attempt to embody the characters' uncertainties).

The novel begins with Leila on the ship to England, goes back to the events leading up to her emigration, forward to England, back to the voyage, forward to England again, with occasional backtracking to the West Indies. No doubt, this reflects the ambivalence of emigration. But it is an inherently awkward way to tell a story, and the author, in this first novel, is not quite up to it. But he has succeeded in accomplishing one of the chief tasks of the novelist in replacing vague generalities about a subject, in this case, emigration, with the specific, detailed, lived experience of individuals.

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