John Murray, £14.99, 314pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Hand Me Down World, By Lloyd Jones

I'm loath to say much about the plot of this superbly disconcerting new novel from the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, for fear of giving away too much. Then again, a skeletal account would give scant impression of the true subtlety of this masterful, prismatic piece of storytelling. It records from differing perspectives a woman's desperate odyssey from North Africa to Berlin in pursuit of the child deceitfully taken from her a few days after his birth.

Abandoning her good job in a Tunisian hotel, she pays to be smuggled into Europe but is dumped overboard mid-Mediterranean. Reaching land by sheer determination, she steals the identity of Ines, a Sicilian woman whose intervention tragically misfires. With no papers, the new Ines flees north, aided by strangers who justify their mostly generous but conflicted behaviour in the opening testimonies.

Most moving is the group of Italian hunters who empty their pockets for her and escort her into Austria, buying her a ticket for Berlin. The American among them baulks at aiding an illegal alien, prompting a speech on Italy's proud heritage of partisan resistance, and the difference between obeying the law and doing the right thing. This crucial difference is the arrhythmic moral heart of Hand Me Down World.

Abused and vulnerable but insanely bent on recovering contact with her son, Ines occupies the centre of the reader's sympathy. Yet almost every kind gesture shown to her she repays with pilfering, theft and betrayal of trust. Sheltering her in his squat, a French poet helps Ines locate the errant father but, even after glimpsing her son, she returns the poet's anxious devotion by leaching his meagre cash. A pastor finds Ines a position as housekeeper to Ralf, a blind old man who gives lodging in return for describing the world to him; but she is soon skimming Ralf's housekeeping money to buy access to her son.

The disturbing beauty of this affecting novel lies not in the quiet eloquence of the voices in the mosaic of Ines's story, but in the layers of meaning. Ralf's blindness allows Jones to play with nuances of perception and complicity, which recombine to question monochromatic morality. "They lean on the safety rail and watch with horror the pain of others," Ines recalls of visitors to the zoo. In one sense, that might describe the reader's sometimes uncomfortable, always compelling engagement with this richly textured novel.

The emotional range and occasional explosive devices of Hand Me Down World recall the taut, sprung prose styles of Mathew Kneale or Chris Cleave, both of whom have explored the vulnerability of foreigners in need. Jones takes this queasy circumstance further by exploring whether there are different modes of being, according to environment, which can alter the benchmarks of morality.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments