It has been quite some time since I read a book that has gripped me so from all angles. Unlike Ghostwritten, which I thought was superb and riveting and intriguing and unusual, Hand Me Down World caressed me with a different tone. It was soft and mellow, smooth around the edges, neatly woven together. It totally eclipsed my expectations.
To start with, the plot: nothing outlandish, a woman, working in a hotel in Tunisia, is seduced by a patron, a tourist from Germany. She falls pregnant, has his child and then in her post-partum daze, unwittingly signs papers which allow him to steal away, child in hand, and disappear back to the bowels of Europe. The woman is left bereft and in a strangely inactive yet determined way, she sets out to retrieve her child … although, perhaps ‘retrieve’ implies too much of a plan … rather, she sets out to find her child, to just set eyes upon him, to know that he is alive and to somehow affirm her own existence through seeing him.
It is a good story, but what sets this book apart is the way that Jones has crafted the tale. It unfolds like a flower, each petal revealing a different angle, told from a different perspective, explaining a different part of the story. There is the truck driver, the film maker, the snail collector, the blind man and the Frenchman. The kind woman on the beach and the Inspector. Each character contributes a new shade to this telling and through the eyes of all these different voices readers come to appreciate the complexity of this tale. Ironically, the only voice absent is that of the lost child, a son, who has a presence, but is silent. There must be some metaphorical significance to his glances and looks, but I have not yet lighted upon it.
The protagonist in this narrative is controlled and composed, even while she is floating in the sea between Africa and Europe. Another type of character would have surrendered at this point:
“Her shoulders ache, her lips are swollen, her eyes hurt. Her skin wants nothing more to do with her. It has lost the silky touch that guests always liked to comment on. Whenever they stopped to pet her she liked to watch the slow marvel of herself emerge in the eyes and face of a perfect stranger.”
But this character is so determined in her mission that she never loses this strength of conviction in her actions and behaviour. And it leads her to be strangely divorced from her body and its requirements. This absence appears throughout the text: while she sits on a train, steals from people around her, has sex with strangers. Everything takes on a different and validated purpose because it is part of her mission to find her son.
She is an interesting construction. We know almost nothing about her past, about the time before the hotel. She is simply a pawn, part of a larger global enterprise to service tourists who wish to sample the exotic Other. She has no history, no accent, almost no thoughts of her own. This makes her illusive, a conundrum, confounding for readers. Yet, despite our inability to ‘know’ her and through this ‘knowing’ to empathise with her, we are still drawn to her and gripped by her mission and her single-mindedness. She is like a gentle tide, pulling us deceptively further out to sea.
Part of the wonder of this book is the way that the protagonist is created, in a hand me down fashion, by the voices of others and it is this, I think, that makes her feel so trapped and immobilised, as though she is waiting for the approval of someone else, waiting to be authored. On so many levels she is defined by her maid’s uniform, her pristine blue coat, her perfect English phrases. Ironically, it is the blind man who sees through her, sees that she is vacuous and empty.
I absolutely loved this book. I loved every moment of it, every page, every breath that the characters took, every word that was spoken. I loved the silences between those spoken words and the descriptions of the places and the emotion that flowed so subtly from each character. I will definitely be reading more of Lloyd Jones! Mr Pip, here I come!!
A review from The Observer.