Sunday, 7 June 2009

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Hearts and Minds was a random pick from the library, and I have to be honest and say its immediate appeal was the cover. But the blurb made it sound interesting too, so that was that, it was coming home with me!

This is one of those stories that has multiple characters all introduced within the first few chapters. In that way it reminds me a bit of Stella Duffy's Room of Lost Things, but the story is totally different. Set in London, there is Job, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe working as a taxi driver, Ian, a South African teacher working in a bottom of the league school to complete his qualifications, Katie, an American immigrant running away from a failed relationship, Anna, an underage Ukrainian working in forced prostitution and Polly, British, divorced and forced to rely on cheap illegal au pairs to enable her to keep up her career as a lawyer, incidentally working for a law firm that defends asylum seekers appealing their deportation.

From this eclectic range of characters it should be clear that immigration and asylum seekers are a major theme of this story. And it's not altogether complimentary about British attitudes towards immigration, encompassing the general public, the press and government policy.
Its difficult to say what the story is actually about, as its about all these characters and their lives. At the start of the novel they all witness (separately) a body of a young girl being pulled out of a pond, and although this only directly concerns one of the characters, for the readers it is a central thread running throughout the book, who was she, who killed her, and why. Although who she is is obvious to the reader early on, but not the characters. As the story progresses, the characters start to intermingle in each others lives a little, and at the end, they are all interconnected and it is this interconnectedness that makes the story come together.

Back to the immigration theme, this being a major aspect of the story. We see the way immigration and asylum seeking status is viewed through the eyes of these characters and they all have a very different take on the subject. Polly, the immigration lawyer, gives us the government viewpoint, although she is highly critical of what she deems the highly random policy of who gets to stay and go. We also see the humanitarian side of it from her, as she struggles with her often pointless defence of people who will undoubtedly sent back to a country they will be killed or persecuted in. From Anna, the teenage prostitute, we see the horrors of people trafficking, and the way young girls are conned into coming here, purely for others financial gain. Job, here to earn money to send home, shows us how much some of these people just want to work to look after their families. Ian is different, as he is legal as he has a British father, but he works in a school mostly populated by immigrant children, and we see the hatred they have for their adopted country through his interactions with his students. He is concerned about the separatism and believes if they were made to feel more integrated things might be better for them.

As well as from the central characters, we also see how these people are exploited when they do get here. If they come and work illegally, they can work, because they are willing to work for much less than the minimum wage, just to be working. The people that employ them for money they can't live on come in for criticism too. This is where Polly's dilemma lies. She is guilty of this, but can see no other way of continuing her career, and providing a decent life for her children.
It's obviously social commentary, and it's obvious where Amanda Craig's heart lies on this issue.

I'm going to avoid getting political and stating my opinions because I could be here all day, but I do think this story makes us realise we need to have compassion, and perhaps use our hearts and minds more when thinking about these things. It's a good story too though. I'd hesitate to call it a mystery, but that theme is definitely there throughout, and the mystery of the girl in the pond is not resolved until the end of the book. Its definitely worth reading, and could go down as one of my best books of the year so far!

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