Hand Me Down World is a fascinating story; it had me completely hooked almost from page one.
The only other book by Lloyd Jones that I’ve read was the Booker shortlisted Mr Pip (which also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize). I’ve got Paint Your Wife on the TBR, but wanted to read this one first, in part because of its intriguing cover by W.H. Chong – the woman’s face is enigmatic and I wanted to find out why. Is that disdain? anguish? a mask for self-protection? For much of the book I was none the wiser…
Mr Pip was a terrific book, original, intriguing, and quite unforgettable, and so is Hand Me Down World – but in a completely different way.
It is the story of a woman, who might or might not be called Ines, who comes as an illegal immigrant to Europe from Tunisia on a quest. I’m not going to spoil the shock of the first chapter by explaining what she seeks and why, except to say that it seems like a hopeless quest right from the start.
What is fascinating is that Jones has woven his story using an overlapping series of narrators, none of whom are reliable. Each of them has a story to tell about their encounter with her. They seem to be witnesses, but the reader doesn’t know who they are talking to. The police? A journalist? Someone – friend or enemy – searching for her?
Like people everywhere, some of the people she meets on her journey are decent, and some exploit her, or try to. By and large she keeps her dignity if not her integrity, and even when befriended by some kind-hearted soul, she remains distant. In their testimonies she refuses all attempts at engagement with others, benign or otherwise; she is either idealised as so single-minded about what troubles her it is as if she has nothing left to give of herself, or she is degraded as remote and obsessive. She is an extraordinary literary creation that will haunt you as you read your way through the book. And so she should, her circumstances are no authorial fantasy…
Ralf is an extraordinary character too. An elderly gentleman who has lost his sight, he sees the world through the eyes of others. His hearing is particularly acute…
With some of the helpers silence is a threat, something to ward off. There was a girl from Prague. She found it particularly challenging. She would fill up a perfectly lovely silence with chatter and inanity, emptying her impoverished mind into that beautiful silence, which I think she viewed as a chasm she might fall in unless she produced a clamour of words. (p110-111)
Jones’s story plays around with the impossibility of truth. Ralf thinks that opposing perspectives are possible, and that’s also what the narrative offers.
When Defoe tells Ralf about the prison ship Esmeralda used as a place of torture which also had a beautiful prow, he asks what Ralf would like to know: how it presented itself to the world or the truth we would come to know about it? Ralf thinks it is possible to hold onto both ideas. (p111) But is it? Once we know an alternative truth, how can we un-know it? What if it is irreconcilable? Hand Me Down World shows us how a woman presents herself to the world, how that world judges her through the filters of gender, race and social expectations, and her own version of the ‘truth’. Which is ‘true’? The story tears apart the impressions the reader has formed about central characters – Jones’s intent is from the outset to disorientate and dupe his readers and to refute their expectations about human nature.
What is it we are supposed to see? What is it we are supposed to think? asks Ralf (p281) as the woman describes a photo of a Nazi atrocity. The atrocity is not his focus, it is the photographer’s complicity in witnessing it that bothers him.
Not everyone likes this kind of narrative, but I like the way unreliable narrators mess with my mind. I like to try and outwit them, and Jones’s cast of characters are harder to outwit than most. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the challenge!
There is a rather grudging review at The Guardian (which has spoilers, another reason to ignore it) but John Murray at The Irish Independent thinks that few will be able to stop thinking about it after they read it. This is true: the book humanises refugees and spares complacent Westerners nothing when it comes to depicting trafficking of one sort and another.
To my delight I found a blog post by W.H.Chong about his cover art (after I wrote above about how much I admired it); it turns out he has designed six of Lloyd Jones’s books (but he didn’t do the New Zealand edition of Paint your Wife that I have on my TBR).
Author: Lloyd Jones
Title: Hand Me Down World
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text.