‘Hand Me Down World’ by Lloyd Jones
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“I was with her at the first hotel on the Arabian Sea. That was for two years. Then at the hotel in Tunisia for three years. At the first hotel we slept in the same room. I knew her name, but that is all. I did not know when her birthday was. I did not know how old she was. I did not know where she came from in Africa … We might be from different countries but the world we came into contained the same clutter and dazzling light …” This is our first glimpse, through the eyes of a fellow employee, of the heroine of Lloyd Jones’s new novel – a nameless African woman who has washed up on the coast of Europe to search for her stolen child.
It would be difficult to think of another novelist quite as original or fearless as 55-year-old New Zealand author Lloyd Jones. A writer of truly international sensibility, Jones has set his novels in Communist Albania (Biografi, 1993); the United Kingdom, with the All Blacks on their first international tour in 1901 (The Book of Fame, 2000); and Buenos Aires (Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance, 2002). In his 2006 breakout novel Mr Pip, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Jones assumed the narrative voice of a 15-year-old girl in war-torn Bougainville. That novel was a drily playful exploration of the migration of Dickens’ Great Expectations into the islanders’ lives. As they transformed the novel, in retelling it, it transformed them.
Yet even when Jones sets his novels at home (Choo Woo, 1999; Paint Your Wife, 2006), their worlds lift at the edges, as story extends solid landscape. This is largely due to Jones’s sentences. Bracingly uncluttered, with an emphatic subject-verb-object momentum, they seem to have a strange alertness, an unsettling sense of intelligent inevitability. This moves Jones’s subject matter, no matter how mundane, into the realm of myth. But Jones’s feel for a bigger geopolitical picture behind events may make him most typically a New Zealand author. His novels reflect our near neighbours’ more strongly postcolonial sense of being productively on the edge of the Pacific, and the edge of the world.
Placelessness is the theme of Hand Me Down World. In its brilliant first half we hear from, among others, “the Inspector”, “the truck driver”, “the elderly snail collector” – they have all met the woman who has come to call herself “Ines” on her journey from Italy to Berlin. Here we see, turned into something epic and wonderful, the journey of one of the world’s poor service workers who has become an illegal immigrant: shipped to the Mediterranean coast, then abandoned in the sea. But halfway through Jones’s novel changes tack. We hear from ‘Ines’ herself. She corrects some of these earlier accounts, and takes us firsthand into the borderlands of need. Here no motivation is pure, and no action untainted. Lloyd Jones’s novel is freshly minted, unsettling and unsentimental.