Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hearts and Minds

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@Barrie Summy

By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show. Samuel Johnson

I came to London. It had become the center of my world and I had worked hard to come to it. And I was lost. V. S. Naipaul

This melancholy London- I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air. William Butler Yeats

I believe we shall come to care about people less and less. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It's one of the curses of London. Ambrose Bierce

Perhaps all cities have a dual nature; but whatever is true of any city, is doubly true of London. When I visit London, I tend to get the tourist's view: of world-class museums, orderly streets, beautiful parks, excellent theatre, good public transport and all the weight of history, which means that even total strangers can delight in recognition. We've all "seen" and imagined London, even if we haven't actually been there. It's a wonder that any of the current eight million inhabitants can gain any purchase there, what with all of the ghosts taking up space.

More than one hundred years ago, politican Joseph Chamberlain described London as the "clearing-house of the world;" Amanda Craig's latest novel, Hearts and Minds, so eloquently illustrates how much that remains the case.

Because the novel's main characters are all outsiders, to a greater or lesser extent, Craig is able to look at London in the largest sense: not only what London is, but what it represents -- what it means to people from all of over the world. Every year, unknown numbers of people come to the city -- hoping to fulfill some dream. Whether they are EU citizens, wealthy expatriates, asylum seekers or illegal migrants, they bring all sorts of hopes and expectations; unfortunately, there is a growing sense that even the vastness of London cannot contain all that is asked of it.

It's as if Craig has carved out a large section of London in the 21st century and done a vivisection on it. And underneath the picture postcard, she reveals a London in seething turmoil. If you haven't been reading the British news for the past decade, this novel is a primer for all sorts of economic, social and political issues. Education, the health service, Labour bureaucracy, the press, religion, the ethical obligations of a first-world country, human trafficking, knife crime, terrorism and social class strata are all examined through the incredibly compelling lens of believable, sympathetic characters.

Polly, single mother and human rights lawyer; Ian, the South African teacher; Katie, the privileged young American; Anna, the Ukranian girl who has been tricked into sexual slavery; and Job, who has fled Zimbabwe, become the five voices of the story. In Dickensian fashion, their individual stories begin to cross, and sometimes those coincidences seem a bit fantastical. And yet, isn't life similarly preposterous? Despite all of the millions of us, despite the vastness of the world, it does seem that certain people are meant to be in our orbit -- that they are our destiny.

Although Craig has written a fast-paced, unputdownable novel, there is no getting around the fact that she describes a world full of grim, cruel realities. London has all of the old vices, plus some new troubles for our time. There are no clean slates, really. Everyone in the novel has suffered in some way, and even the youngest characters have had their innocence bruised. Despite this, there are examples of heroism that totally illuminate this novel -- and make it something which is, ultimately, uplifting to read. Of all of the questions that the novel poses, the most important seems to be this: Who will have the courage to intervene on the side of justice? (paraphrasing Ian's words).

In a city of strangers, when we are called upon to intervene for the sake of one individual, will we find the humanity to do so?

Hearts and Minds is a totally compelling novel; I cannot recommend it highly enough.


David Cranmer said...

I want to jump on the next plane to England immediately. Great review of a book that would have escaped my notice and one I'm adding to my Amazon shopping cart. Thanks.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, this sounds wonderful indeed. I will let you know when I have read it.
Sunny today!

Molly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly said...

Very compelling recommendation! Thanks, I've added it to my list of 'Books To Examine More Closely'.

rxBambi said...

Just found your blog thru MPC (Julochka) and I love love love it. I can't wait to read this book and look forward to more of your posts. I've been to London several times and each time I see it in a new light.

Beth said...

It’s already on my To Read List – that’s how much I trust your judgment! ;)

Great review.

marja-leena said...

Wow, just after being in London, this jumps out at me, and onto my 'to read' list! Thanks, Bee.

Meri said...

Well darn - I immediately went to Amazon here in the US and find I can't get it. Her 2004 book is available, but they don't have Hearts and Minds listed. Your link goes to Amazon UK.

Bee said...

David - I didn't know anything about this author . . . but I read an interview with her at dovegreyreader and became intrigued. Now I've ordered her entire back catalog!

Elizabeth - I hope you read it soon! I'd like to know if you find it as hard-to-put-down as I did.

Molly - I've got one of those lists, too! But mostly I just buy lots of books and then can never read them all.

rxBambi - I'm glad you found me! (I love Julochka's blog, too.) I love the ambitious scope of this novel. It gives such a great sense of the city.

Beth - Oh, good!

Marja-leena - I think that it would really appeal to you, although it does make London seem rather scary.

Meri - Can you order from Amazon UK? I've spoken to the author (Amanda Craig) and this novel hasn't been picked up by an American publisher (yet), which seems a great shame.

julochka said...

i will definitely be picking up this one. if it's anywhere as beautiful as your words about it, it'll be great!

i made book lists today inspired by yours a couple of weeks ago. it was fun. :-)

Barrie said...

I'm sold. If you found it unputdownable, I want it. Thanks for reviewing a book that would've slipped under my radar.

Sarah Laurence said...

I love how you started this review with quotations about London. Thanks to your review and dovegreyreader’s, I’m going to order this book to pick up when I’m next in the UK since it is not available in the USA (not on amazon.) Fabulous review – enticing without giving anything away.

Kelly H-Y said...

Great review!!
The pictures of your home/garden on your blog are STUNNING!!!

Anonymous said...

On by TBR list. Thanks for the great review, can't wait to pick it up!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I would have missed it otherwise.

I have to admit to an idealized view of London. It is my favourite city, although I see it through the rose-coloured glasses of a romantic tourist. But I never tire of visiting there, any every trip seems to gift me with more wonderful memories.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I love that last question--so very relevant.

And what a beautifully written review! Having read much 'English' literature, I can certainly understand how there would be ghosts aplenty in London.

Bee said...

Julochka - I really enjoyed your book list, btw. This would be a great read for a long trip because it makes time whizz by.

Barrie - Isn't that the great thing about the club? It gets you out of your own book biases.

Sarah - It is very frustrating that this book is not available in the U.S.!! Thanks for mentioning the quotes; I thought that they were perfect. (And I'm glad that you approve of my discretion because I know you hate spoilers!)

Kelly H-Y - Thank you! I'm probably going to have to indulge in some flower pictures soon because my roses are stunning!

Thanks, Beth.

Pamela Terry and Edward - I have to admit that I idealize London, too. In some ways, it was hard to read about "the other" London; but I felt like the book had so many valuable things to say.

Alyssa - Yes, all of those literary associations do give the place its special sheen. Thanks for visiting!

Reya Mellicker said...

The book sounds compelling. I don't read novels, but maybe I'll give this one a try.

I love London. And I'll admit I'm always a tourist when I'm there (even visiting friends is tourist travel, isn't it?) but wow. Wow. LOVE LONDON!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Wow, this novel sounds powerful and fascinating. I've only been to London once as a tourist, and I loved it, but there was a lot I didn't see, and maybe didn't want to see. Your review is very compelling, and I'm adding this book to my list.

P. S. Thanks for dropping by my blog.


♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

I was sorry to read Sarah's comment that it's not available in the USA!

A wonderful review!!!! I've never been to London. It's always sounded so romantic, though. Most would cringe to know the reality of our own city streets...

Jenn Jilks said...

Another must read!

Great photos!

Mary-Laure said...

Wonderful quotes - they make me miss my dear, dear London.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Ooh! I want this book. I'm getting it tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I have a related recommendation for you, Bee. Check out the song "Sights and Sounds of London Town" by Richard Thompson. The man is a GOD. We traveled all over the UK to see him thrice when we lived in Ireland. You should totally catch one of his concerts. His lyrics are frequently sardonic, always thought provoking, beautifully performed. And he is so cute! Squee!

Sarahlynn said...


Bee said...

Reya - You would like this novel; it is substantive, well-told tale.

Linda - London IS wonderful. It was fascinating, though, to read about all of the undercurrents of life there.

bfs Mimi - I hope that the book will be released in the U.S., but if you really want to read it just email me and I will mail you a copy.

Jenn - Thanks!

Mary-Laure - Finding good quotes about London is incredibly easy. There were so many more that I wanted to use!

FF - I'm going to send this to you. Also, I will be sending you an email to tell of my love for Richard Thompson. We saw him in Oxford a few months ago.

Sarahlynn - Oh, thanks.

Polly said...

Hi Bee, I found your blog via Elizabeth's, I loved your booklist and made one myself since then

and this is a great recommendation, and as a Londoner I'm very curious about it. I'll read it. Thanks!

Bee said...

Polly - I'm so glad! (that you found me, and that you want to read this marvellous book)

Fantastic Forrest said...

I should have known you'd be on top of Richard Thompson.

So to speak.


Can't wait for your care package - what a treat!

paris parfait said...

I love London and have visited or lived there in many tumultous times in my life. Based on your great review, I'm headed straight to to order this book! Thank you.