Cambridge is the story of two people: Emily Cartwright, the daughter of a slave owner, and Cambridge, one of her family's slaves. The story is narrated by both of these characters. Emily speaks through journal entries of her voyage from England to visit her father’s sugar plantation in the West Indies. She gives her impressions of the plantation and expresses her feelings about it and about the complex dynamics among the people that live there. Emily’s ocean voyage to the Americas is treacherous, and her maid dies during the voyage. However, despite the hardship, she travels as a paying passenger, and thus her voyage is sharply contrasted with the transatlantic voyages of Cambridge, in which he—traveling as a captured slave—endures unimaginable suffering.
Emily’s view of events is tainted by the fact that she has benefitted from her father’s slave owning, but she knows nothing of plantation life. When Emily arrives at the plantation, she finds that her father’s plantation manager has disappeared, and a man named Arnold Brown has taken over. Brown is a brutal slave owner, but nevertheless, he manages to seduce Emily and impregnate her. Brown’s slave mistress, who is mentally unstable, is incensed over this, and Emily begins to fear for her life. Cambridge is this slave woman’s husband, and he is understandably distressed that Brown is using his wife and he can do nothing to stop the abuse. Cambridge also suspects that Brown murdered the former plantation manager. During the course of the story, Arnold is murdered, and Emily gives birth to a stillborn child. Cambridge is hanged for Arnold’s murder. It is on the eve of the hanging that Cambridge gives his account of the events that took place at the plantation, which contrasts with Emily’s account.
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 botanical catalogs that typically make up narratives of travel to exotic places.
Thus, while the attention that Emily pays to her surroundings is continually filtered through her awareness of her own foreign and superfluous presence, a strong sense of the superficial features of her world also emerges. Picturesque vistas abound, as does a great deal of other heterogeneous and semidigested information, from the making of sugar from sugarcane to the ritual practice of obeah. The author...
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