In The Atlantic Sound Caryl Phillips explores the complex notion of what constitutes 'home'. Seen through the historical prism of the Atlantic Slave trade, he undertakes a personal quest to come to terms with the dislocation and discontinuities that a diasporan history engenders in the soul of an individual.
Philips journeys from the Caribbean to Britain by banana boat, repeating a journey he made to England as a child in the 1950s. He then visits three pivotal cities: Liverpool, developed on the back of the slave trade, Elmina, on the west coast of Ghana, site of the most important slave fort in Africa; and Charleston in the American South, celebrated as the city where the Civil War began - not for being the city where fully one-third of African-Americans were landed and sold into bondage.
Finally, Phillips journeys to Israel where he encounters a community of two thousand African-Americans, whose thirty-year sojourn in the Negev desert leaves him once again contemplating the modern condition of diasporan displacement.
Journeys, as forces of spiritual and cultural transformation, bind this trio of nonfiction narratives, which explores the legacy of slavery in each of the three major points of the transatlantic slave trade. Once again, Phillips demonstrates the great aptitude for characterization, and for evoking historical settings and evaluating the moral demands of history, that he has honed in his fiction (The Final Passage, etc.) and nonfiction (The European Tribe). In the opening narrative, John Emmanuel Ocfansey, the adopted son of a prominent African trader on the Gold Coast, travels to Liverpool, England, in 1881 to investigate the loss of a substantial amount of his father's money, clinging to his Christian faith as he enters the thicket of the British justice system and, clear-eyed, studies the ways of the English. Another powerful story of identity, culture and assimilation follows with Phillips's account of an African minister's dilemma in 18th-century Accra, in which the minister, afraid to speak out, turns a blind eye to the horrors of the slave trade around him. The concluding narrative, of Federal Judge J. Waties Waring's bold battle against Southern racism in South Carolina in 1950, emphasizes the stance of a man who is willing to risk everything for what he believes. Phillips strips away his own personal and cultural armor with meditations on race, traditional social rites, identity and nationalism, although his analysis occasionally eclipses the raw power of his material. While the last two narratives don't carry the impact of the first one, they all sparkle with keen intelligence, careful research and well-expressed truths.