Frightening truths, Elspeth Sandys

Hand Me Down World
Lloyd Jones
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143205098

 

Let me start by nailing my colours to the mast. Despite my aversion to the idea of “best” books, whether it take the form of lists (the top 100), or the egregious “great New Zealand novel”, I have, since the publication of Mister Pip, found myself describing Lloyd Jones as not only the best writer writing in New Zealand today, but one of the best writing in English anywhere in the world.

This is not to say that Jones has produced masterpieces, nor to deny that some of his novels fall below the standard he set himself with The Book of Fame and Mister Pip. What it does acknowledge is that, taking the work as a whole (and that includes not just novels but children’s writing, short stories and essays), it is clear from the sheer range of subject matter and the author’s concentrated engagement with the larger world that we are dealing with a writer possessed of unique intellectual and imaginative gifts.

It must have been hard, in the wake of the international success of Mister Pip, to sit down and write another novel in which, once again, a world far removed from the writer’s own is brought into being. But just as the “other” world of war-torn Bougainville continues to resonate in the minds of readers of Mister Pip, so, I predict, will the world of Jones’s nameless African protagonist (“heroine” implies a very different story).

Not that there aren’t difficulties. Hand Me Down World has several, among which is the fact that the story can really only be understood after two readings. But not for a moment does Jones falter from his purpose. Interviewed at the time of publication, he had this to say: “[T]he whole notion of hand-me-down is that this person is not in charge of her story. She’s part of a large wave of faceless, dislocated people washing over Europe.”

It’s hard to get more “other” than that.

The genesis of the story, the author tells us, was a newspaper article about a boat carrying illegal immigrants from Africa, capsizing, leaving its passengers clinging to a tuna net. The image of that fragile net, all that stands between life and death, hovers over the scene in Hand Me Down World in which migrants who have paid to be taken from Tunisia to Europe are tipped into the sea, with only a cluster of plastic buoys to save them from drowning. The unnamed African woman whose story Jones is telling survives. The implication is that no one else does.

A lesser novelist might have used that scene as a starting point to tell the story of this Prometheus-like individual from her point of view. Empathy for such a person, whether she be fleeing some undisclosed tyranny or – as is the case in this novel, searching for the baby that has been snatched from her – would have come easily. What we would have had then was a story of hardship overcome, cruelties and kindnesses encountered, leading to an emotionally satisfying resolution in the reunion of mother and child. But though all these elements exist in Hand Me Down World, it is not the story Jones has written.

“The truth tends to frighten people … Some are alarmed and want to run away from the natural disaster spilling towards them.” These words, spoken by Ines, the name the African woman appropriates for herself on her arrival in Europe, provide a clue as to the complex purpose at the heart of this novel. What Jones has set out to pin down in this multi-layered tale is the ways in which we not only lie to ourselves and others, but seek confirmation for our less honourable deeds by manipulating the facts. Thus the stories we tell, and by implication this includes the one Jones himself is telling, come to be seen as unreliable; shifting sands whose shape constantly changes as new information emerges.

Had Jones written a conventional quest story – mother searches for lost child – the reader’s sympathies would have been engaged from the get-go. Urging the “heroine” on on her journey, labelling the kidnapping father a villain, applauding those who help, while condemning those who hinder, would have come as naturally as breathing. That the reader reaches the end of Hand Me Down World denied the moment of catharsis that might have come from such a telling is presumably deliberate on Jones’s part. What the reader is faced with instead is the shock of the book’s final revelations, and the realisation that the entire story, with its complex interrogative structure, must now be re-evaluated.

Ines’s journey from Tunisia to Berlin, where her child lives, is told not in her voice but in the multiple voices of the people she encounters: the self-deluding truck driver; the elderly snail collector; the insomniac chess player; the kindly Italian footballer. Other voices take over once she reaches Berlin: Bernard, the “little Frenchman” whose generosity strains credibility; a young English woman doing research for a film on the Roma people; Ralf, the elderly, blind German, with a dark secret of his own; Hannah, his estranged wife; Defoe, the lone Kiwi in the story, who falls under the spell of Ines’s beauty and air of mystery; Abebi, wife of Jermayne, the baby snatcher ….

Not all of these characters are convincing. Jermayne, who is not given a voice of his own, remains outside the story, his motives for acceding to his wife’s need for a baby, however it be acquired, never explained. Similarly Defoe, who disappears from the story, leaving the loose ends of his own history, and his motives for deciding to betray Ines, unexplained. Which is to be preferred, Defoe wonders, in a conversation with Ralf, the truth that “presents itself to the world”, or the truth “we come to know about”? The answer is “both”, a statement that could well stand as an epitaph for the novel.

There was a moment during my first reading of Hand Me Down World when I thought that what Jones was doing was involving the reader in the act of turning away from what we don’t want to see.

One of the people Ines encounters in Berlin is an Ibo pastor, working at the African Refugee Centre. He describes the nameless, faceless people who swarm into Europe from the African continent as “ghosts … those whom we choose not to see.” Jones is skilled at implicating the reader in the story he is telling. I remember the distress, bordering on disgust, which I felt reading Choo Woo, Jones’s novel about child abuse, as the tentacles of his story reached out and pulled me in, making me in some way party to what was going on. He could have done this to profound effect in Hand Me Down World. Indeed there are times when he does, the distancing mechanism at work in his prose standing as an objective correlative to the distancing mechanisms we all employ when faced with the horrors endured in that “other” world of refugees and “ghosts”. But Jones has a larger, less comfortable purpose in mind – an examination of the “truth” of other people, and of the stories we tell ourselves.

To say that there is too much going in this novel probably reveals as much about this reader as it does about the book itself. Had Jones written the story of a mother searching for her child, as if that were the only truth to be reckoned with, instead of the story he has written, in which truth plays hide and seek with the reader, the emotional satisfactions might have been greater, but the price of that would have been a loss of what we have come to expect of Jones – moral and emotional complexity.

The language Jones employs, paradoxically, is mostly simple: short sentences, deliberately drained of emotion. At times this leads to a flatness of tone, making it hard for the reader to differentiate one narrative voice from another. But the emotion is there, buried under the lies Ines tells in order to survive. “But what is more important than one’s own child?” she asks herself. “Countries don’t mean anything … I can no longer tell countries and zoos apart.”

It is a measure of Jones’s brilliance that these simple words, uttered from a prison cell, resonate back to the story’s beginning and on to its uncertain conclusion.

 

Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer and reviewer. 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review
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