I like novels that have an underlying theme or themes that gradually impinge upon my mind as I read; themes that become clear often only after I’ve finished reading. There is no doubt about the theme of Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. Although it begins with a murder its main focus is a passionate denunciation of the treatment of illegal immigrants, thinly disguised as a novel. The characters are mouthpieces for the condemnation of social injustice.
It is page after page of unrelenting misery. Poverty and prejudice, squalor and suffering, prostitution, racism, illegal immigrants, and life in desperate circumstances. There is no relief from the images of brutality, fear, hatred, misery, and helplessness and evil, danger, deceit and terror abound.
In the midst of all this is Polly, a single mum and a lawyer working on behalf of illegal immigrants, employing them as au-pairs, cleaners and taxi-drivers. Whatever she does she feel guilty, exhausted, oppressed and in a mess. It rubbed off on me as I read this book, long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the murder of a young woman, whose body is dumped in a pond on Hampstead Heath, then meanders through a whole host of characters (some one-dimensional) before the relationships (in some cases it seems forced) between them become clear. The main characters, apart from Polly, are all immigrants living in London, Job an illegal taxi driver from Zimbabwe, Ian, an idealistic supply teacher, from South Africa, Katie from New York working for a political magazine, and Anna, a teenager from the Ukraine, trafficked into sexual slavery.
It is heart-rending, but totally depressing reading. I could only read it in short bursts. It’s depiction of life in London today is harsh, and criticises the British who aren’t willing to do the work carried out by immigrants and complain that life in Britain is no longer the same with jobs are being taken from them. It asserts that it is only the immigrants who do work such as nursing and taxi-driving, teaching and cleaning. Reading this book should deter anyone from wanting to live here, particularly in London. Everything comes in for criticism from the NHS to the state school system. There are not only illegal immigrants but also asylum seekers, trafficked under-age prostitutes, suicidal Moslems, mindless journalists and the idle rich.
I can see that this is a worthy book, a serious book and yet I found I just couldn’t warm to it. I’m waiting with interest to see if it makes the Orange Prize shortlist, to be announced on 20 April.