With a bumper turnout, the Bookclub met on 4 September 2018 to discuss their latest book; ‘Crossing the River’ by Caryl Phillips

Here’s what our members had to say (about the book)…

The Book

Crossing the River by [Phillips, Caryl]

From the acclaimed author of Cambridge comes an ambitious, formally inventive, and intensely moving evocation of the scattered offspring of Africa. It begins in a year of failing crops and desperate foolishness, which forces a father to sell his three children into slavery. Employing a brilliant range of voices and narrative techniques, Caryl Phillips follows these exiles across the river that separates continents and centuries.

Phillips’s characters include a freed slave who journeys to Liberia as a missionary in the 1830s; a pioneer woman seeking refuge from the white man’s justice on the Colorado frontier; and an African-American G.I. who falls in love with a white Englishwoman during World War II. Together these voices make up a “many-tongued chorus” of common memory—and one of the most stunning works of fiction ever to address the lives of black people severed from their homeland.

Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (1993), James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction (1993)

258 pages (Kindle Edition)

First Published by Vintage January 18th 1993

Available in local bookshops, on Kindle and from Southwark Libraries. (Not available on Audible)


Unfortunately our write up is somewhat brief this month – apologies! The overall feeling about the book was mixed. The book is essentially written in 4 distinct parts loosely tied together with the prologue and epilogue. We referred to these as the ‘Liberia’ section, the ‘Ship’s Logs’, the ‘Wagon Trail’ and the ‘England WWII’ section. Many of us found the ‘Ship’s Logs’ section especially tedious and many skim read this part. The ‘Liberia’ section brought some interesting historical information to some of our members but the way in which the story was told with large gaps of time and little explanation as to the change in heart of the main character was for some frustrating. The ‘Wagon Trail’ section was generally enjoyable but very brief. The ‘England WWII’ section was considered to be nicely written and an interesting story but considering that the book was billed to be about ‘the scattered offspring of Africa’, the narrative of the African-American GI was distinctly absent.

Some readers especially enjoyed the unique and differing way in which the stories were told – by letter correspondence, copies of a captain’s shipping logs and first and third person narrative. Others found the writing to be disparate and rather frustrating.

The subject matter was largely emotionally difficult to read and each story had its own set of moral and emotional issues to be processed as well as the wraparound story (the book starts with an african man selling his three children to a slave trader).  It was pointed out that interestingly, most of the stories were told from the point of view of white people, be this the slave owner who supported the founding of Liberia and allowed his most educated slaves to travel there, the Captain of the slave ship or the Yorkshire lass who falls in love with the GI. The other main point discussed was the general confusion regarding the timeline of the stories. The first three being variously set in the 1800s and the last during the second world war but with the sold african children supposedly being the primary character in each of the stories despite the timing. Some members were content with the essence of the story defying the timeline but for others this caused significant confusion whilst reading the book.

The Verdict

The overall verdict was mixed. The subject matters were individually very interesting, with some members wishing to read up more on certain aspects such as the formation and settlement of Liberia but the writing style, structure of the book and plot remained divisive.

Overall Rating

6ish out of 10

Further Listening

Caryl Phillips adapted the last section of the book set in WWII into a BBC Radio 4 drama. It is not currently available on the BBC iPlayer Radio but do keep an eye out in the listings as the dramas are often repeated.

About Bookclub

To find out more including how to become a member , please visit the Our Clubs page. Details of our latest and previous books are available here.

Importantly we’re not a scary intellectual Bookclub!

We read a wide range of different books including chick lit, biographies and other non-fiction, thrillers and the occasional classic. We do obviously chat about the books; what we liked, what we didn’t and sometimes segway into issues raised in the book. We don’t generally come armed with lists of high-brow questions! We also share recommendations of other books we’ve read and occasionally gather at someone’s house to watch a film or TV adaptation of something we’ve liked.

Overall we have a great time socialising and a bit of a discussion about the book. We all occasionally fail to actually read or finish the book but that’s no problem either, we still tend to turn up and find out what we’ve missed (or not as the case may be!) Most of all Book Club is a great opportunity to get to know a smaller, more intimate group of the East Dulwich WI.

How It Works

Each month one member brings a shortlist of books. We narrow down the books democratically using two round of voting. We generally select books at least 2 months in advance to give us ample opportunity to read them around our schedules.


Jaflong Tandoori
42 East Dulwich Road, London, SE22 9AX

There is absolutely no requirement to buy food or drink although most of us find we can’t resist the temptation! They do however cater easily for veggie, vegan and gluten free diets.


New Readers Welcome

For details please email Kirsten or Chloe. 

EDWI Bookclub Review – “Crossing the River” by Caryl Phillips

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