Somebody should have Natasha Fatale call her agent. The Russian “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” baddie could seriously raise her acting cred with turns in a slew of new literary adaptations. That’s because Eastern European waifs are rapidly becoming the Silver Surfer of British literary fiction.
As soon as an emotionally distant young immigrant shows up, underdressed and with no place to stay, you know the middle-aged hero is in for it. (Unless it’s a mystery, in which case she’s not a great life-insurance risk.) As a harbinger of doom, she’s quite effective. Unfortunately, her story – what little we get of it, since we glimpse her only through the hero’s lust-addled eyes – usually ends up being more interesting than the self-manufactured crises of the main character. (It also may be that I just don’t have enough sympathy for the existential malaise of the upper-middle-class male. Sorry, guys.)
Award winner Caryl Phillips (“Dancing in the Dark”) puts several distinctive spins on this trope with his new novel, In the Falling Snow. For one thing, his waif has a few secrets, and Phillips happily doesn’t stick to the older man/younger woman relationship playbook. And by making his middle-aged, middle-class character a child of West Indian parents who grew up during the Thatcher era, Phillips raises interesting parallels with today’s new wave of arrivals struggling in class-conscious British society. “In the Falling Snow” is most telling, though, in its thoughtful discussion about generations, as Phillip’s main character tries to reconnect with his estranged father and his disenchanted son.
Readers of Phillips’s earlier works already know that he’s an insightful and sympathetic chronicler of race, British identity, and the immigrant experience. Which is good because Keith, the chilly narrator of “In the Falling Snow,” moves as if he’s embedded in aspic and has all the self-awareness and empathy of geeky Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”
As the novel opens, Keith is genuinely stunned when he breaks off what he thought was a purely physical affair with a 26-year-old co-worker and she retaliates with a vicious campaign employing both sexual harassment laws and the Internet. (His marriage had ended three years earlier, when he confessed a different affair to his white wife, Annabelle, who had cut herself off from her disapproving family for him.)
As with the hero of Booker finalist Monica Ali’s “In the Kitchen,” with which the novel shares several similarities, Keith is slow to take even the most basic action as his career goes into a death spiral and Annabelle frantically warns him that their teenage son is in trouble.
On leave from his job as a policy manager of race relations, Keith toys with writing a book about American music of the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, he gets distracted by a young Polish immigrant he sees in the library. (This particular development had me groaning, “Dude, just buy a sports car, already!”) But Phillips is too intelligent a writer to dismiss so quickly.
Eventually, Keith’s own troubles cause him to reevaluate his relationship with his dad, an immigrant whose dreams for a better life in Britain ended with stints in mental institutions and a career as a janitor – until he was forced to retire. (Keith’s mother died when he was 6, and, with his dad hospitalized for years, Keith was mostly raised by his white stepmother.)
Keith’s analysis of his father will have readers snorting with recognition. “Despite Annabelle’s entreaties, he has found it difficult to be always sympathetic toward somebody whose stubborn behavior so successfully obscures whatever sensitive or vulnerable qualities he may possess.” They even are regulars at the same type of pub: outdated and populated by no-hopers.
The novel climaxes with a pages-long soliloquy that’s a stylistic tour de force of revelations. While Keith may never achieve much self-awareness, by the end of “In the Falling Snow,” a reader will understand him very well indeed.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddosiers.blogspot.com.