Hearts and Minds (by Amanda Craig)

29 09 2010

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, some obscure English writer once wrote.  In Hearts and Minds, Hearts and MindsAmanda Craig shows that something has been rotten in the state of Britain for a while now too. Like Dickens, another one of those olden writers, Craig shows her concern for social reform in an attempt to takes us back to the heyday of the Victorian novel. However, while Dickens took us to the streets of London in an often poetic and sometimes even sentimental way, Craig’s prose reads more like literary journalism with a crime story twist.

The book starts with the discovery of a woman’s body in Hampstead Heath.  In contemporary London she could be about anyone.  She is  “just one more discarded thing which will be counted as lost, if she is counted at all”. At the same time Polly Noble’s immigrant, illegal, au pair Iryna disappears.  Polly, the divorced mother of two can see the irony of the position she finds herself in: to keep up her independent lifestyle, she needs to keep working – as an immigrant lawyer, no less – but she can only do so when she relies on the help of people like Iryna.  Unwanted, on the run, often afraid and always insecure. How inconsiderate of Iryna to have left Polly and her family now!

Although the mystery of Iryna’s disappearance and the investigation into the mystery woman’s murder are an integral part of the story, it’s the kaleidoscopic bunch of immigrants that is at the heart of the novel.  They come from all over (South Africa, the USA, Zimbabwe, the Ukraine, …),  and they take us everywhere around London (taxi cabs ,  the head office of The Rambler, a Camden apartment brothel, a London school – of course bottom of the league tables). It’s probably the story of the 15-year-old Ukranian Anna that will make the biggest impact on readers: lured with the prospect of having a future in London, she ends up as a prostitute, beaten and abused by her (stereotypical) Russian pimps, rented out for £50 per ‘massage’.

Craig weaves the lives of the different characters together, in a seemingly unending carrousel of encounters, with sometimes lasting but more often than not fleeting relationships. The encounters between the characters in the book are like London life itself. This is definitely not the London of tourists, Madame Tussaud’s and the billboards on Picadilly Circus. This is the London of poverty, illegal immigration, and youths left behind.

There’s a fair deal of moral criticism in the book, but at the same time there is a shimmering of hope,  as Job gets his chance to return to Africa to find his wife;  and Anna, who, despite remaining illegal, manages to escape her prostitution cell.

The realism and the literary journalism of this novel combined with the crime story make this book into a page-turner. However, Craig is no Dickens. London will remain a (beautifully) gritty city, long after the last page of this book. It will continue to be the city of hope for the hopeless and unwanted. And these same people will probably continue to be discarded and counted as lost, if they are counted at all, of course.

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