Caryl Phillips’s <i>The Lost Child</i>: A Story of Loss and Connection


  • Bénédicte Ledent English Department University of Liège, Place Cockerill, 3-5, B-4000 Liège
  • Evelyn O’Callaghan Dept. of Language, Linguistics and Literature University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus P.O.Box 64 Bridgetown


Caryl Phillips, The Lost Child, Wuthering Heights, intertextuality, family


Postcolonial interrogations of the fraught historical relationship between Britain and the Caribbean have attempted, via different methodologies, to access or recuperate the experiences of the people forcibly brought into contact via the infamous Middle Passage. These studies face the enormity of temporal distance: how to conceive, now, of the “lostness” of those who centuries ago were brought from one world to another under coercion, or who came in expectation of transformative possibilities that proved devastatingly illusory, and who were all bound together by exile from home. One could argue that in the absence of a balanced and unbiased official record, the most effective imaginative evocations of this state of lostness have been articulated in Caribbean literature. Repeatedly, writers like George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Jean Rhys, Maryse Condé and Caryl Phillips – to name only some of the best-known – have engaged with the official colonial archive (historical and literary) of cultural and racial contact and clash. Their works attempt to evoke the human toll, the emotional and psychological impact of the “monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds” (Derek Walcott, Omeros).

This paper looks at one example of such engagements, Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child (2015). We call attention to the novel’s representation of the lost children of that very first encounter of north and south (specifically, eighteenth century northern Britain and the Caribbean); but also, the fate of their lost children, and children’s children. We also discuss the novel’s conversation with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, particularly with regard to the fascinating links between the Caribbean, Liverpool and the north of England. Additionally, the novel is read for its calling up of other texts by Caribbean writers, specifically those of Jean Rhys and several of Phillips’s own earlier work. The Lost Child engages in an intricate web of intertexuality and we elaborate on the structural and hermeneutic patterning of its conversation with other writers and their books. Like the historical fiction Cambridge (1991), the new novel is deeply invested in ‘literary parenthood’: the narrative reclamation/ adoption of absent stories, the unvoiced accounts of orphans, of lost, stolen or denied children of Empire missing from the literary and historical record even as their ghostly traces haunt it. The haunting trope of the lost child and the liminal and savage landscape of the heath pervade Phillips’s new work, a text in which  narrative disjunction mirrors the broken and disjointed families that are its subject, and  apparently illegitimate connections between the various strands of the novel challenge us to experience a rewarding simultaneity in our reading praxis.

Author Biographies

Bénédicte Ledent, English Department University of Liège, Place Cockerill, 3-5, B-4000 Liège

Bénédicte Ledent teaches at the University of Liège, Belgium, and is a member of the postcolonial research group CEREP ( She has published on contemporary Caribbean and black British literature and is the author of a monograph on Caryl Phillips (2002). She has edited or co-edited several volumes, the latest of which is The Cross-Cultural Legacy: Critical and Creative Writings in Memory of Hena Maes-Jelinek  (2016, with Gordon Collier, Geoffrey V. Davis and Marc Delrez). She is co-editor of the book series Cross/Cultures (Brill). 

Evelyn O’Callaghan, Dept. of Language, Linguistics and Literature University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus P.O.Box 64 Bridgetown

Evelyn O’Callaghan is Professor of West Indian Literature, Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados. Her published work includes articles and chapters on West Indian literature, particularly on women’s writing, alternative sexualities, early Caribbean narratives and more recently, ecocritical readings of Caribbean landscapes in visual and scribal texts. She is the author of Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction by Women (Macmillan, 1993) and Women Writing the West Indies 1804-1939: A Hot Place, Belonging to Us (Routledge, 2003). She edited a nineteenth century Caribbean novel, With Silent Tread by Frieda Cassin (Macmillan, 2002) and the reissue of Elma Napier’s early Dominican novel, A Flying Fish Whispered (Peepal Tree Press, 2011). Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of West Indian Literature, she serves on the advisory committees of several scholarly journals and has recently co-edited interdisciplinary collection of essays on Caribbean Irish Connections.