Crossing the River was short-listed for the Booker Prize of 1993. It is the least bleak of Phillips’s novels. Most reviews have focused on the unity of its voices and themes. Several point out that the Africa of the ancestral father was also a harsh environment.
The novel also throws light on some lesser-known aspects of African American history. Nash Williams’s aborted dreams illuminate the difficulties of ex-slaves’ resettlement in Liberia. The roles of African American cowboys like Chester and of nineteenth century black immigrants to California are relatively neglected parts of Western lore.
More than one critic has read Edward Williams’s mentorship of Nash as a homosexual relationship. This is indeed possible. The sentimental flourishes of the era’s writing style make it hard either to prove or to disprove. The author’s intent on this point is opaque. More important thematically is the relationship’s foster-father motif and Nash’s bewilderment that his father has betrayed him. In Crossing the River, Caryl Phillips has woven divergent voices into an intricate tapestry that traces the legacy of the slave trade.