Review Blog

Dec 01 2010

Hand me down world by Lloyd Jones

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Text Publishing; Melbourne, 2010. ISBN 9781921656682.
(Year 11+) Lloyd Jones's last novel was Mister Pip, a winner of a number of prizes, in which the main character escapes the violent reality of life in Bougainville through the fiction of Charles Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. His new novel Hand me down world is about the difference between contemporary worlds, the world of the affluent traveled sophisticated European and the world of the colonized and the dispossessed. The main character, who is nameless and has nothing except a child, struggles from Tunisia to Berlin, all the time inhabiting the world of the 'illegal' immigrant, the outsider, the unregistered foreign national. The story starts in a resort hotel in Africa. From the first the reader sees her, and the African staff, trained to be self-effacing, to have no personal wishes or desires, to leave their personal stories very definitely behind and simply to serve others. Europeans travel to Africa, to sunbake, to swim, to fornicate. The woman, later known as Ines, continues to serve even as she discovers wishes and needs of her own, and as she develops her own subversive life. She becomes a woman rather than a servant and in due course a mother who, when she loses her child through betrayal, learns how to use others to feed her needs. 'Africa' now struggles to Europe, almost drowns, walks, climbs, starves, and meets with incidental kindness, accidents and cruelty. On the journey she meets a cross-section of European life, for example Italian partisans, the snail collector, a truck driver, a movie researcher, a performer of Rilke's poetry and a police inspector. The existence of the other world, the hand me down world, is made explicit in Berlin, where the displaced climb through the divide of a wall to a squat that harbours whole families as well as individuals who have little. Ines is a beautiful and charismatic woman, it seems, despite having little language, and this helps her in many situations, except for when she is employed by a blind man who she robs in her desperation to find her child.
The story is told through the eyes of those who come into contact with her, whether fleetingly or constantly, and is reconstructed by a police inspector who becomes involved with her situation and intervenes on her behalf. This dedication is quite hard to believe; more disappointingly, the voices of all the characters, including Ines herself when she speaks, all sound the same, quite detached, which is reasonable perhaps as they are giving testimony of a kind, but sadly lacking in individuality. However, this is an easy-to-read novel that captures the plight of the 'illegal' immigrant in a thought provoking and sensitive way.
Jenny Hamilton

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