John Murray, £14.99, 314pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Hand Me Down World, By Lloyd Jones
Friday 12 November 2010
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.
Books And it is whizzpopping!
MusicThey're running their own restaurants
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Dentist who illegally killed Cecil the lion blames local guides for scandal
- 2 Kate Winslet thanked 'particularly horrible' girl who bullied her at school after Titanic success
- 3 Norwich paedophile ring: Woman at centre of gang who made children 'sexual play things' guilty of 23 offences
- 4 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 5 Walter Palmer: American dentist revealed as killer of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe
New on Netflix August 2015: From Narcos and Spellbound to Kick Ass 2 and Dinotrux
Listen! Beowulf opening line misinterpreted for 200 years
Heath Ledger's father reveals dead actor's 'Joker diary' written during The Dark Knight
Game of Thrones season 6: New toy line suggests Jon Snow is not among the dead
Spectre: Ellie Goulding is almost definitely singing the theme song to the next Bond film
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Labour leadership contest: I would never quit the party, says Liz Kendall