A novel which examines contemporary life in a churning, teeming city with a complete absence of judgement is a rare thing. Even rarer is one which tells us something new about how we live now.
Hearts and Minds is ambitious, not least because Amanda Craig devotes equal space to five main characters in today’s London: Polly, a divorced human-rights lawyer and mother of two; Job, an illegal Zimbabwean immigrant working as a cab driver and car detailer; Anna, a 15-year-old Ukrainian prostitute; Katie, a young American working at a prominent magazine; and Ian, a South African teaching at a dysfunctional inner-city school.
The novel opens with the dumping of the body of an unknown woman in a pond on Hampstead Heath. Who the woman is, how she is connected to the other characters and how the five eventually meet each is the novel’s ostensible plot, and it is sharply rendered.
However, what makes Hearts and Minds one of the most exceptional contemporary novels of the past year is the clear-eyed, quiet pathos with which Craig tells her tale. At moments it feels like five books in one, with each the record of a person being drawn, steadily and almost magnetically, to the people who will change their existence.
It is the connections formed between the characters that tells us who each one is. Polly, who has just ridden in Job’s cab, is caught out by the sudden departure of her nanny, Iryna, and needs someone to ferry herself and her young son around. She calls him back and, over hours together in a car, the two forge an unexpected bond.
Katie, bereft after breaking up with her fiance, is afforded by her solitude the chance to become the saviour of another character. Other encounters are fleeting and unrealized: Polly nearly runs down Ian, cycling in Hampstead; Job and Polly never know how closely they are tied to Anna.
Hearts and Minds is the sixth novel by Craig, a long-time reviewer and broadcaster and the children’s book critic for The Times. She says on her website that the seed of the novel was planted in 2001, when she began to notice just how many people in her daily London life were immigrants, from the cab drivers to the local café waitresses and the drycleaner – and started to consider whether they were legal or illegal, happy or unhappy, what had brought them to where they were.
The novel, intended for publication in 2004, was delayed by Craig’s serious health problems, and all the operations she required were performed by first or second generation immigrants, in hospitals in which she was nursed by women from all over the world. For a time after her hospital stay she was cared for by a series of au pairs from eastern Europe.
Craig’s experience is reflected in her work: there are conversations, recollections and musings that are so authentically depicted they could only have come from real life. As she says, the au pairs had fascinating stories to tell of war, ambition, misery and triumph over adversity. Craig has paid close attention to what she has been told, and has rewarded their faith with a novel filled with compassion and devoid of sentimentality.
It is not an easy read: there are scenes, particularly some involving Anna, that will make you wince. But, though the story begins with five people in varying states of fear and misery, it ends rather differently. What is in between is remarkable.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Hachette