Caryl Phillips and Robert Antoni reviewed by Mellissa Hasson
This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.
Having read (very) brief snippets of both Caryl Phillip’s The Lost Child and Robert Antoni’s As Flies To Whatless Boys, I knew I was going to be in for a treat. I’m sure the rest of the audience would agree when I say, I was not disappointed.
There’s something quite special about listening to an author read from their own work, and the room was captivated by these two. What a great showcase of Caribbean writing! Although, it was interesting to hear in discussion, that Caryl Phillips doesn’t really think of himself as belonging to a particular national grouping. Born in St Kitts, but raised in Leeds, he commented, “At what point do I belong to that particular shelf in Waterstones?”
It put a great smile on my face when both were asked what attracts them to the hard task of narrative complexity. Phillips responded that he had never really followed the expected narrative form, with the opening words of his first novel being “The end.” Clearly complex narratives are not something he has striven to achieve, but are a natural part of who he is as a writer. Antoni’s work is just as intriguing in its narrative form, combining the past narrative of a boy with contemporary letters and emails.
Antoni’s use of the vernacular was a great highlight of the evening. Not only in the reading that brought many a chuckle – particularly Mr Robert and his Xerox machine – but in discussion of how “embracing the vernacular” excites him. Although there were some doubting questions from the audience about whether readers would miss the vernacular, not having Antoni’s accent, his use of what he labels “Trine-vernacular-text-phone speak” not only adds a great comic element to these parts of the book, but also helps bring out this dialect to the reader. Phillips also added to this, commenting that although it’s a writer’s job to communicate this well on the page, “The reader needs to do some work too.”
The great subject of the ‘literary canon’ made an appearance, not only in John McLeod’s questioning, but from the audience. Both Phillips and Antoni seemed to be in agreement that a love of reading, and hence certain writers, will always find their way into your own work. That it is not necessarily a case of disqualifying the canon, but of “destabilising it” (Phillips) and making us stretch our thinking and be open to fluidity. Antoni commented that the canon is “a work in progress, always redefining itself.”
Leaving this event, I had only a hunger to swiftly add both of these works onto my ever growing reading list. I may even be tempted to slip As Flies for Whatless Boys to the top of that list.
Mellissa Hasson was born and raised in Bradford and has spent all of her life in this beautiful part of the country. She now lives with her husband of 10 years and two cheeky boys. She was born with an adoration of reading, which has led to a love of writing.