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.

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