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Foreigners Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 23, 2007

3.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Kate ChristensenAlong with interest and admiration, I read parts of Caryl Phillips's new book, Foreigners, with, I confess, a mixture of bemused perplexity and thwarted expectations, wondering, what is this guy up to here? The rather stodgy historical passages coexist somewhat uneasily with the more fluid and lyrical fictionalized accounts. The three sections rub up against each other with a fierce but not quite cohesive energy. But in the end, the book is a bleakly ironic examination of what it means to be Other—historically and socially—through the stories of three very different black men in England. The first section, Doctor Johnson's Watch, is narrated by a late–18th-century journalist who sets out to write a piece for a gentleman's magazine about Francis Barber, the Jamaican boy who was given in the early 1750s to Dr. Samuel Johnson, of the famous Dictionary. Dr. Johnson raised the negro as his ward until his death; he gave him his freedom and a generous pension, which Barber squandered. At the end of the narrative, Barber, lying on the verge of death in a squalid pauper's hospital, offers poignant insight into the nature of freedom and otherness, insight that the journalist, despite good intentions, may not be prepared to receive.The second section, Made in Wales, is narrated in a hard-boiled third person that traces the rise and fall of Randy Turpin, the mixed-race boxer who beat Sugar Ray Leonard in 1951 to become, briefly, middleweight champion of the world, then fell, inevitably, the narrative suggests, into hapless debt and ruin. The third, final, most riveting and beautifully written section, Northern Lights, is told by a chorus of voices who cobble together the mysterious life and death of David Oluwale, a 20th-century version of Bartleby, a stowaway from Nigeria who washes up in Leeds in 1949 and ends his life stubbornly homeless, willfully persecuted and in 1969, drowned.Interestingly, Phillips goes into none of these three black men's consciousnesses or psyches. The reader stands some distance away from them with the narrators; except for Barber's piercing, frank lament, we don't get any direct emotional information from any of them. This narrative strategy is essential to the book's intent, as is, I suspect, the uneasiness it provoked in me along the way. Phillips gets at real-life complexities in a visceral, nondidactic way: there are no victims or heroes here. I finished the book hearing Melville's Ah humanity! echoing back through its pages.Kate Christensen's fourth novel, The Great Man , was published last month by Doubleday.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* In each of his somberly beautiful and lacerating books, Phillips, a virtuoso, prizewinning novelist with a biographer's avidity for fact, tells the stories of individuals caught up in the African diaspora, and ponders the question of how one retains a sense of self under the annihilating onslaught of racism. In this elegiac triptypch, he reclaims the lives of three black men in England, deciphering the toxic social chemistry that first gave each man hope, and then destroyed him. Francis Barber, brought to England from Jamaica at age 10, became Dr. Johnson's most trusted companion during the great literary genius' wretched last days, only to fall into an abyss of poverty and prejudice. Randolph Turpin, a mixed-race Englishman, astonished the world in July 1951 by winning a match against Sugar Ray Robinson, but Britain's first black champion boxer lost his bout with a hostile world. David Oluwale, a bright and ambitious Nigerian teenager, stowed away on a ship to England, intent on becoming an engineer. Instead he became the target of racist and sadistic policemen. A lone freedom fighter, he stood up to his attackers, who murdered him in 1969. As each elegantly restrained yet finely detailed tragic tale portrays a cruelly and unjustly condemned man and reveals hidden facets of English history, Phillips' brilliantly realized and indelible novel of remembrance poses an unspoken yet inevitable question, have things changed for "foreigners" of color? Seaman, Donna

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (October 23, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400043972
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400043972
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,796,207 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on December 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Three historical figures, black or mixed-race, living at very different times in England, are the subject of Caryl Phillips's latest book. Two of them had come at a young age from the West Indies and West Africa respectively, the third was a son of an immigrant father and a white English mother. They have in common their belief that England is their home and their yearning to fit into the society of their time. All three marry into English families and raise families of their own. However, as a result of changing circumstances, they each end up in misery and hopelessness. In a merging of fictional reportage, memoir and description of historical facts, the author retraces their lives and the gradually more hostile environments leading to their unhappy end.

Francis Barber came to England as a young slave, gained his freedom and became the long time servant and companion of Samuel Johnson, the famous 18th century literary figure. Randolf Turpin turned into a national boxing hero around 1950, culminating in his briefly gaining the middleweight world championship. Finally, David Oluwale arrived in England in 1949 from his native Nigeria as a young stowaway and settled in the industrial region of Leeds. He became known as the first victim of racially motivated police brutality leading to his death in 1969.

Each story is self-contained - unconnected to the others. The links are the underlying themes of a black British subject's struggle to belong to "his" country. As an outsider in the "home" country, they must come to terms with a society that they inadequately understand and that is less than helpful in easing their adaptation and integration.

In attempting to place the stories in their true context, Phillips applies a different narration style to each tale.
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Format: Hardcover
Caryl Phillips writes with great power and beauty. Many of his books create a world in which the familiar becomes unfamiliar, as Phillips often writes from the point of view of new immigrants. Caryl Phillips latest work, "Foreigners: Three English Lives", combines three separate tales of black men in Great Britain. All three characters are based on actual individuals whose biographies are mixed by Philips with invented narration and moment.

The first novella concerns Francis Barber who found himself in an awkward place as both servant and friend to the 18th century English intellectual Dr. Johnson - who is best remembered as the originator of the dictionary. The second novella brings us up to the 1950's as we consider boxer Randy Turpin and his surprising defeat of the champion Sugar Ray Robinson for boxing's middleweight title in a fierce match in 1951. The third novella tracks, through multiple viewpoints and voices, the death of David Oluwale at the hands of the British police in 1968.

Caryl Phillips, by combining three disparate experiences of black men in Britain, forces us to break free from our stereotypes and look at Barber, Turpin and Oluwale as individuals. The three men are united by the color of their skin and the prejudices they experienced, but their separate and precious lives stand out as jewels on velvet. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
My strongest overall impression of this work is the apparent deterioration in the treatment of black men in England between the first story (1700s) and the third and last story (mid to late 1900s). Phillips brings us the mostly tragic true (but embellished) stories of three black men from English history - Dr. Johnson's servant; a boxing champion; and an African immigrant. Dr. Johnson's servent seems to come to a tragic end mostly due to his own inability to find his way after his long-term employer's death. Turpin, the boxer, is much his own worst enemy, but is also "fed upon" by white and black hangers-on, and the white community which was his home failed to provide support or assistance once he was no longer a star. The African immigrant's story, however, is more like that of an American inner-city black - a story of closed doors, no opportunity, hopelessness, and police brutality, at a time when the idea that racial prejudice is inhumane was just beginning to be more generally accepted.

Overall, an interesting and fairly enjoyable read. Certainly educational. That combined with the importance of the subject matter make this a strongly recommended work.

The memoirist/reporter style is a bit dry for the long haul, but the structure and the subject matter provide plenty to keep the reader plugged in. The multiple voices in the last story, switching without much warning and often without clear identification, make it a bit difficult. But it does achieve the documentary feel that is apparently intended.
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Format: Paperback
The book consists of three unconnected stories - that is, except for the theme of how black men were treated in Britain - told in what seemed to me a fairly clinical way, from the third person point of view. By not getting inside the head of the key person in each story, the author kept this reader at arms' length and made it difficult to become emotionally involved.
The author blends fiction and non-fiction but I thought that she could have made a better story had she stuck to one type of writing.
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