Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones
Lloyd Jones, evidently fond of a large canvas, has chosen to follow Mister Pip with a novel that sweeps from Tunisia to Berlin as an African hotel maid tracks the child she bore as the result of a terrible deceit.
The tracking is literal: Ines, the name adopted by the maid, is predator-like in her concentration and resistance to hardship as she journeys through southern Italy in search of the boy she produced as an unwitting surrogate. The fragmentary early part of the novel is occupied with others’ encounters with Ines – a chess player, a sleazy truck driver, a group of hunters.
In Berlin she settles, finds work caring for an elderly blind gentleman and forms a pact with the father of her child, the full weight of which Jones reveals only gradually. The novel’s most absorbing passage is written from the perspective of Defoe, a New Zealand researcher who joins the Ines-Ralf household to serve as the gentleman’s ‘eyes’, reporting aloud what he observes on their daily walks.
Ines’ service in this regard was insufficient, Ralf tells Defoe: “Today in Tiergarten, I asked what she could see. She said, ‘Trees. People.’ It could be China or the Amazon. I don’t speak Spanish or whatever it is she professes to speak. Her English is that hotel English you’ve heard from her. Whole phrases from the hotel lobby flow out of her . . . “
The slow-burn structure, and Jones’ flinty prose, keep the reader at a distance, in what might be a deliberate strategy by the writer: just as other characters approach Ines with caution, trying to make her out, so we must dance around her, seeing her through the eyes of others, before the narrative at last shifts to her perspective.
And if one has trouble responding emotionally to Ines’ plight, perhaps that reflects her own detachment. She has no feeling to spare on her journey towards her son, and later in the service of the appalling deal she must strike to gain sporadic access to him.
Her stoicism prohibits both love and pity, yet her obvious need, her fervency and sureness of purpose invite charity – from hunters in the hills of Italy as she makes her way to Berlin; from Defoe, who allows her thefts from their mutual employer to go unreported as he becomes entangled in a quasi-commercial liaison in which Ines seems to hold the balance of power. (A brief passage, once Ines has ended their affair, in which Defoe makes an unexpected finding, is supreme in its subtlety and precision.)
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
The fears of the wife of the child-thief, as she realizes that no obstacle is too great for Ines, emerge later; it is this woman who embodies the terror that we want Ines to have felt, but suspect she may be too strong to either admit or reveal.
Hand Me Down World is a novel of unexpected power – a simple story, on the face of it, but one you will find yourself musing upon days after the final page.