Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Phillips tells Dorothy’s and Solomon’s stories in disjointed segments, with frequent and abrupt shifts in time, place, and point of view. Shifts in verb tense and sudden swings between first-person and third-person narration can be jarring, and some critics have faulted Phillips for the technique. Others have applauded him for it, arguing that the disorderly pattern of presentation mimics the random perceptions of memory and reality, of “I-ness” and “they-ness,” that make up human experience.

Some critics have seen A Distant Shore as a critical commentary on modern England. Through the eyes of Dorothy and Solomon, Phillips portrays the country as a nation stagnating, a culture in decline. The streets are crowded with disaffected youths and disfranchised homeless people. The decorum of England’s past is gone. The language is obscene, the behavior raucous and cruel. Some critics have noted, however, that Dorothy and Solomon are unreliable narrators. Are their observations accurate gauges of cultural and societal decline, or merely the narrow views of social misfits?

Critics have noted a common thread in Phillips’s work: This life may be hell, but it is a hell of its inhabitants’ own making. Although Solomon and Dorothy seem unable to escape the futility of life, some of the novel’s minor characters show kindness. Phillips offers hope though them, despite the despair that reigns supreme in this novel.