Cambridge, Caryl Phillips’s fifth novel, is a complex feat of historical imagining. Cambridge attempts to reconstruct the spirit of the age in which it is set. This ambitious, and largely successful, attempt conditions the work’s language and form. The book is written in a style that reflects not only the literary fashion of the novel’s time period but also the habits of mind of the time. The absence of, among other salient details, the name of the Caribbean island on which the greater portion of the book’s action takes place also emphasizes the novel’s focus on the palpable, but largely uncataloged, human experiences to which the colonization of the New World gave rise.
While Cambridge continually draws attention to the resources of language and literary form, revealing them to possess greater power than the characters’ subjective implementation of them can control, the novel also uses these resources to meet some of the requirements of orthodox historical fiction. The fact that three of its four parts take the form of various kinds of nonfictional documentation is not a mere novelty but rather an economical means for the author to establish the novel’s fictional world. A case in point is the longest of these three narratives, that of Emily Cartwright, which opens the novel and which reproduces the form of the ethnographic journal. Emily’s travel narrative serves a dual purpose. First, it introduces readers to the outlook and mentality of one of the chief characters, thereby establishing one of the novel’s fundamental emphases, which is less on material reality than on perceptions of reality. Second, Emily’s journal is a vivid pastiche of the ethnographic, sociological, and...
(The entire section is 711 words.)