Book Review: “The Atlantic Sound” by Caryl Phillips

This was another book I read for my Readings in Global Literature class last semester. This one isn’t a novel. It’s part travel, part history book, and covers several trips the author made in order to study the African diaspora and look for global community among blacks.

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Even if that topic is of no interest to you, the historical sections were fascinating. One of them went deep into the roots of Liverpool, England to discuss its key role in the slave trade, as well as more current issues of race within the community. The other was about Charleston, South Carolina and the life of District Judge J. Waties Waring. Both of these sections were completely new history to me, and Phillip’s way of telling them was both refreshing and honest.

Another part of the narrative that I found refreshing and honest, was the immigration story of Phillips’ guide in Ghana during Panafest. Phillips almost tells the story twice, and by this challenges the classic stereotypical narrative people often hear or imagine once you discover someone has been deported from a country or denied a visa.

Many of my classmates found Phillips’ tone overly negative. What I saw in him was a skepticism of the idea that the entirety of who we are is to be found in our ancestral roots. But this doesn’t mean he’s completely anti the idea of seeking out your historical origins. He describes things very cynically at times, but he also places against that cynicism the actions of some of the members of the diaspora that he encounters. If you’re paying attention you can see him tracing the community among them. Even if you don’t agree with his ultimate analysis of global community, his book is a fascinating study of the results of the transatlantic slave trade on the black diaspora.

Phillips’ writing is lovely, but I wouldn’t necessarily call this book an easy read. It was dense, though not heavy, and as much as I adored it, the reading itself was slow going. The most rewarding part was the last chapter and the epilogue. Something changed with his writing style and it became like poetry. It happened slowly and subtly. I looked back and couldn’t tell where it even started. By the time I got to the very last paragraph of the book I just didn’t want it to end, the writing was just so beautiful.

I will definitely be reading more of Phillips’ work in the future. He appealed to me with the way his writing was both beautiful and intellectually stimulating.

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