by Caryl Phillips

St. Kitts-born Caryl Phillips has built his career writing about themes of race, much of it about the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Of his many novels, only the last two (including this one) have present-day settings. Phillips is not quite a household name here, but is well-respected both in England, where he was raised, and in the U.S., where he has taught at various universities for the past 20 years.

Phillips_In the Falling Snow_EDRevGet past the corny title and In the Falling Snow is a rather good novel about a black man’s mid-life crisis in contemporary Britain. It deals with issues of race and identity without getting consumed by them, thought-provokingly exploring the cloudy waters of a society that now relies on government departments set up to deal with such inconveniences. 

Keith Gordon, a social worker in his late-forties, works in one of these departments. His job is to run London’s “Race Equality unit,” which has recently been lumped in with “Disability and Women’s Affairs.” Is this a good sign or a bad one It’s unclear: Keith finds only bureaucratic drudgery in the “meaningless” policy reports he is responsible for churning out. 

His parents are from the West Indies, but having never been there himself, Keith has no memory of a “tropical life before England.” The photo by his bedside is that of his white stepmother, Brenda, who raised him after his mother died and his father, remote and tetchy, was institutionalized for a series of psychological breakdowns. 

Keith’s own marriage to Annabelle —who is also white—ended three years ago. The two have been forced to communicate of late, however, about their rebellious teenage son Laurie after the boy has a series of run-ins with various authorities. Keith reassures Annabelle that he will “have a talk” with Laurie, but there is no space for the boy to stay in his small, overpriced flat and, in truth, he realizes he has no real insight into what goes on in his son’s world, is not even sure if colour plays a part in his current problems. 

Going home one night, Keith sees three youths on the train who, like his son, are partly white, noting that: “It is clear from their baggy dress sense, and from the way that they slouch and speak, that they identify themselves as black.” The reality seems to startle him: colour has become a matter of lifestyle choice. 

As part of a generation “brutalized by Maggie Thatcher’s police,” Keith has certainly experienced racism, most blatantly from his own father-in-law, a military man-cum-banker who embodies the “disapproving” stares Keith still thinks he sees in the eyes of passers-by. This is a man who: “Wasn’t in favour of colour prejudice in England, he just wanted an end to the thing that caused colour prejudice. In other words, immigration.” 

Of late, though, Keith’s life has been marked mostly by poor relationship choices. As the novel begins, his attempt to diplomatically end a fling with Yvette, an employee almost twenty years his junior ends messily. After trying to humiliate him by forwarding their courtship emails to the entire office, Yvette takes things one step further by filing a harassment suit against him. 

Annoyed but seemingly unalarmed by the turn of events, Keith is put on paid leave, resolving to finally start the book he’s been meaning to write about his passion: American soul music. Instead, however, he begins stalking a young Polish language student he meets in the library, imagining that: “The pair of them can laugh about the English and their strange bathrooms, with one tap for hot waters, and a completely separate tap for cold water.” The girl’s interest in Keith turns out to be mostly one of bemused indifference, however, and he abandons the chase as abruptly as he began it. 

The tone of the novel changes abruptly near the end when Keith is forced the bedside of his ailing father, Earl. The final chapters are Earl’s story: an extended monologue that, while not particularly convincing as an extempore speech, is still moving in its bitter straightforwardness. A “son of Empire,” Earl came to England for a better life and instead got treated with violence and disdain. He wanted to read law, but ended up mopping the floors of the university. Here, finally, is a moral lesson we can sink our teeth into: Earl’s life as a black immigrant has been an outrage, not the indeterminate muddle of his son and grandson.

Phillips has said that he wants his readers to be “feel differently about the world” after reading his books. Canadian readers, sons and daughters of Empire with an ever-expanding canon of outstanding fiction by and about immigrants (themselves), will find familiar themes here but are more likely to feel stirringly diverted than transformed by this novel’s subtle insights and engaging, moveable story.

—Emily Donaldson