Triple Mirror Images In Black and White

CROSSING THE RIVER By Caryl Phillips Alfred A. Knopf 237 pp., $25

A NAMELESS black father in another century sells his three African children into slavery. ``The crops failed,'' he explains calmly. ``I sold my children.''

In his novel ``Crossing the River,'' Caryl Phillips begins the narrative at that moment of betrayal - ``desperate foolishness,'' says the father - and with a spare, resonant vision Phillips explores aspects of the universal black experience since slavery. The novel was nominated in 1993 for the British Booker Prize.

For Phillips, born in the West Indies and educated in England, the three children become emblematic and symbolic, their separate experiences rooted in three different times - early and late 19th century and mid-20th century - and on three continents. Phillips intends the children, Nash, Marsha, and Travis, to serve as carriers of the burdens of all blacks as ``children'' surviving in a world made selfish and stupid by racism.

Nash is enslaved in America, converts to Christianity through a white mentor, and returns to Africa to convert others. Marsha's short chapter focuses on her as a lonely old woman in the West after the Civil War. And Travis appears as a sweet-natured American soldier in World War II in England and has an affair with a married white English woman.

Another section in the book is composed of excerpts from the ship's log of an 18th-century British slave trader.

Phillips's writing is pure, smooth, and unembellished. Whether he writes in the vernacular of the 18th century or the voice of a chronically unhappy English woman, the line is beautifully sure.

But Phillips's thematic intent trips over the wider implications that muscle into the world of this novel; this is not just the story of blacks, but is almost equally the story of whites.

As has been noted well in some 20th-century literature, particularly from William Faulkner and James Baldwin, blacks and whites are inescapably linked in a kind of mirror image of mutual distortion.

Nash's story is told mainly through a series of his letters from Africa intended to be read by Edward Williams, his white, spiritual mentor in America. Unknown to Williams, his jealous wife hides Nash's letters. When Williams learns of Nash's death and all the unread letters, he hastens to Africa to try to understand the puzzle of why Nash abandoned Christianity.

Thus, white man and black ``child'' are pressed together here, with Williams filled with guilt as he travels to Africa and a grim conclusion. Nash's letters, written over many years, relate a difficult life in Africa trying to serve God. But the culmination of this relationship is told from the white perspective. Aside from Nash's last formal letter, the reader knows little of the deep turmoil he must have felt.

The last half of the book is the story of Joyce, a miserable, plain English woman, criticized by her ailing mother, unhappy in an abusive marriage, and caught in World War II tensions and fears. She eventually has a brief encounter with Travis as an American soldier.

But again, this tenderly told story is from Joyce's perspective, the story of a bitter woman softened, and not an intimate look at Travis. At one point Joyce says, out of the despair of someone who was thoroughly unloved, ``I couldn't believe it. He'd [Travis] come back to me. He really wanted me.''

Love between men and women may be inexplicable in today's tangled world, but what Travis saw in her, why a black man took the initiative to get close to this white woman, is not explored beyond an implied loneliness. The result is a character seen through ground fog when a gentle, cleansing rain was needed.

Still, power drums out of these pages. In an epilogue, Phillips writes, ``There is no return'' to undo what the black father did to his children. Through the crucible of travail that characterizes black/white relations, Phillips argues that what can change, and heal, the distortions of the races is love.

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