The Dancing face book cover
Image credit: Sabrina Schioppa

The Dancing Face and the Mission to Correct Historic Bias in British Publishing

One of the best books I’ve read this year is by Mike Phillips. He is a British writer and broadcast journalist. In 1991 he won the Silver Dagger Award by the Crime Writer’s Association for The Late Candidate, in 1996 he won the Arts Foundation Award for Thriller Writing and in 2007 he became an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. Phillips graces the literary world this year with the republication of The Dancing Face, firstly published in 1997.

An engaging thriller, it is set in the London of the 90s and follows the story of two brothers, Gus and Danny, a Nigerian exile, Okgibo, and the clever Justine. Gus, with the help of two lowlifes, steals the ‘Dancing Face’, an inestimable Benin Mask, from the British Museum, in an attempt to gain an avalanche of attention regarding the British Empire’s thefts in Africa. At that point many characters come into play as they all have an interest for the mask – the millionaire Okgibo, the hopeful Justine, the mercenary Rodney and, finally, Gus’s brother Danny. The introduction is written by the amazing Bernardine Evaristo – she curated with her publisher, Hamish Hamilton, a new series called Black Britain: Writing Back which aim is to “correct historic bias in British publishing and bring a wealth of lost writing back into circulation” (p.vii). The Dancing Face is part of this series thanks to its preoccupation with Black culture being appropriated by the British.

I loved the way the character’s past is extremely relevant to the story – as soon as I got to know them better, I was inclined to understand their present actions rather than judge them. This point was brought up by Phillips himself in a recent interview I had with him – the importance of the past. However, the book has a lovely open ending which makes the reader miss the characters and, at the same time, leaves them satisfied with the story. When I asked him where he thinks his characters ended up after the book ended, he said that their future should be open and mysterious as it is in real life.

Regarding personal backgrounds, it is notable that the image of women is often related to sexual concepts and situations – when I confronted him with the subject, Phillips said that he would not want people to feel like he is sexualising women in his book, rather that the sexualisation is a product of the characters’ background, not the author’s. So, once again, the past plays a huge role. His book is for everyone to read and enjoy. This answer satisfied me greatly – as a feminist, I was taken aback from the objectification in the book. It is soothing to know that it is put in a context of personal background for each character rather than the whole hue of the book.

In conclusion, The Dancing Face is a book I highly recommend for everyone with interest in African culture and thrillers. It raises questions which we are not used to ask ourselves and situations with which we may be not familiar. The way the book never judges the character’s actions and doesn’t give a philosophical explanation of good and bad is comforting. Overall, a great read.

Author: Mike Phillips

Published by: Penguin Random House