Little, Brown £17.99 (419pp) £16.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897

Hearts and Minds, By Amanda Craig

The theme of Hearts and Minds - shadowy, unwanted migrants in London - began to excite literary London five years ago, leading to a cluster of novels by accomplished old and new writers. Film-makers had got there first: Stephen Frears made his gritty Dirty Pretty Things, followed by Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering and Ghosts by Nick Broomfield.

Until recently, creators of fiction ignored the human detritus swilling around global cities, London most of all. The "feral" subterranean creatures were not worthy of their attention. Now they are, it seems. Rose Tremain's The Road Home won the Orange Prize; Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian sold millions; Maggie Gee's last two novels explore the relationship between a messed-up white female lecturer and Ugandan servants. Monica Ali's new novel, In the Kitchen, is set in a hotel which employs floating migrants (a setting brilliantly exploited in the Frears film) and Chris Cleave's The Other Hand pulls together separate lives and trajectories - a frisky magazine editor and a 16-year-old Nigerian asylum-seeker, for starters.

Although the marketplace is crowded, Craig's tome will still hold its own because she eschews laboured profundity. Her style is immediate and precise, and convincingly dramatic. She skilfully mixes skilled reportage (once a journalist, always a journalist) with a filmic sensibility. Her heroine, Polly Noble, appeared first in Love in Idleness, an upper-middle-class romp in Tuscany. Polly had a rich American husband and two children. That is all gone. Now a divorced single mum, she is an immigration lawyer with heart.

There is something about Polly that makes her appear insincere and irritatingly naive. But that's why she is credible. How many such people do I know, who froth with pity for incomers and "celebrate" our metropolitan diversity yet readily exploit or mistrust "illegals"? Even when transformed by climactic events, Polly can never really never understand what it is to be stateless and lost in transition.

Iryna, her Russian au pair, vanishes. All that matters to the caring solicitor is her domestic chaos. It is too late when she faces up to the instinctive selfishness of her class: "The empty room upstairs haunts Polly. She goes up to it at night. Its forlorn, tatty walls are a reproach. Perhaps it was never as nice as she thought, or perhaps it is the guilt about all that she has failed to do". Iryna's death means there can be no forgiveness. Her body is "just one more discarded thing which will be counted as lost, if she is counted at all".

Other characters appear and reappear as if on a merry-go-round, lives linked, then parted, brought close only to move on too fast; too many really, so you barely care about some. Dickens could do multiple stories and people, in part because many were caricatures. The realism of modern writing makes different demands. Less is more.

Job the Zimabwean cabbie, sensitive, educated and immeasurably sad, grips your heart. So too Kitty, the desolate American, and Ukrainian Anna the teenage sex slave (although her pimps are off-the-shelf stereotypes). Less convincing and too obvious are the philandering magazine editor, his cynical wife and long-lost son.

I could have done without the social commentary on bad schools and bad NHS and bad police and bad children and bad Muslims and bad metropolitan karma. London works and redeems. Somehow even those forced into prostitution can make a new start here and the dispossessed find love in our cold climate. Thankfully, that optimism comes though as the compelling tale unfolds. You can't put this novel down, even if babies are yelling and the pots are boiling over. It is not Craig at her best nor most ground-breaking, but Hearts and Minds is, nevertheless a terrific read.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown's 'The Settler's Cookbook' is published by Portobello

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
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
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    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
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam