A Phoenix in the Blood is the tenth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by Barrie Rockcliff in 1964, and it is something very different from Mr Patterson’s usual. It is an off kilter romance with racial tension thrown in for fun. It is not often you read something like this in a Harry Patterson novel—
“Through the trees he could see the tower of an old church that seemed half-formed, unreal in the mist. Everything had an air of nostalgic beauty and he was filled with a pleasant sadness.”
Jay Williams is a young, intelligent man of Jamaican descent who, after receiving his PhD in history, is doing his National Service in the Intelligence Corps. He is learning Russian in a small language school in the textile town of Rainford, England when he meets Caroline Grey. Caroline is a young girl—only 15 years old—who is more lonely and broken than anyone should ever be. The two start a strange (and plutonic) relationship that causes something of a stir. The townspeople understandably whisper about the relationship, and when Caroline’s mother finds out she forces its end.
A Phoenix in the Blood is an uncomfortable novel. Jay is 23, and Caroline is 15. The relationship is plutonic—they are basically two lonely outcasts who enjoy each other, but there is something of a romance between them. The townspeople’s reaction to the relationship is portrayed to be as much about Jay’s race as his age, which, at least in today’s moral mindset is bewildering. I think, or at least hope, the reaction of a romantic relationship between an adult and a child would be equally concerning whether it is of mixed race or not.
With that said, A Phoenix in the Blood is an enjoyable and smoothly written novel. Caroline is a sweet girl living with her grandfather, and she is seemingly much older than her years. Her father died at the Yalu River in Korea, and her mother is a career-minded woman living in London. Caroline is the most interesting and likable character in the novel. She is strong, sensible, and just a bit of a romantic.
A Phoenix in the Blood is one of Mr Patterson’s attempts at a literary novel; the other is his fine novel Memoirs of a Dance-Hall Romeo. It is flawed, but entertaining and, in places, even thought-provoking. There is an interesting scene late in the novel where Jay is watching Caroline walk toward him across a field. A passing cloud’s shadow sweeping toward Caroline. Jay, in an attempt to beat the cloud’s shadow to Caroline, begins to run.
“When he was still thirty or forty yards away, it enveloped her and he stopped running. And then the shadow passed over him in turn and he felt suddenly chilled.”
This line essentially captures the theme of the novel. There is a darkness, which Caroline and Jay are unable to escape. There is a fatal romanticism, which is a tell of time and place.