‘And yet suffused with kindness and courage’
By Max Dunbar.
Hearts and Minds, Amanda Craig, Little Brown, 2009
London is a city of exiles: pay attention and you will hear the woes of the world.
– Nick Cohen
There’s little sense of place in contemporary fiction. Too many authors want their work to be timeless, and so give as little background detail as possible in order to escape the confines of location and era. Yet this makes for dull, watery litscapes with characters that are little more than floating brains. In striving for immortality, it’s easy to settle for limbo.
Amanda Craig takes the opposite approach. I can’t remember a contemporary novel that is so recognisably London and so recognisably now. From the rarified clutter of the highbrow conservative journal to the overcrowded circus of its state education system to its dark and hidden places where bodies are dumped and sex is exchanged for cash, Amanda Craig’s London is so true it’s overwhelming, right down to the babble of street conversations and the dust motes in the city air.
James Kelman once complained that ninety per cent of fictional characters don’t have to work. Craig’s characters do little else. The book is full of the indignity of work, and the indignity of everything that has to be done to allow work to happen: the scramble for childcare, the unhappy solidarity of bus and tube journeys. Her story follows a collection of migrants connected, though they don’t know it, by a murdered woman who is discovered in Hampstead Ponds. ‘People are always more connected to each other than not,’ muses Job, a Zimbabwean taxi driver, ‘whether by greed or shame or fear, but finding the point of connection, that is the miracle.’
There is a great novel waiting to be written about the British immigrant experience and Hearts and Minds comes close. Fit young men and women are kept in penury and enforced inactivity for years on end by a Home Office that doesn’t allow them to work, or pay taxes to a state that hasn’t had to spend the money to educate them. If immigrants work, they are damned for undercutting indigenous labour: if they don’t, they’re damned for living off the work of others. They are second-class citizens, with a system of second-class justice in the form of the institutional and legal purgatories of Campsfield and Yarl’s Wood. Because they have no voice they are the easiest target for a pundocracy that has a bizarre fear and envy of the poor and struggling. There is no discourse more removed from reality than the language of the political class on UK immigration.
Writers will struggle with the weight of this perception and some do their best to tell the other side. Rose Tremain does this best: Lev, in The Road Home, is a silent and hardworking yet impulsive and fallible man. Chris Cleave did his research for The Other Hand but his protagonist, Little Bee, is too much of a noble victim to be taken seriously as a narrator. What saves Craig’s characters from noble victim status is her uncanny gift for looking at a familiar world through eyes that remain fresh and never naive.
A rich, seamless powerhouse of a book, Hearts and Minds shows us that the immigrant experience is also the human experience. In it Craig affirms the truth of Greg Palast’s credo: that it’s not where you come from that counts. It’s where you’re going.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 22nd, 2009.