I used to find myself saying, I can’t imagine. But, I’ve since found out, you can – it’s just a case of wanting to.
What this character is talking about is empathy – and empathy, the having or not having it, is for me a major theme of New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones’ latest novel, Hand me down world. The novel is chock-full of characters who vary in their ability to empathise or not with other humans, to behave altruistically or selfishly towards others, to treat others with the dignity that all humans deserve or as nobodies to be ignored (or worse). These are not, in the real world, absolute alternatives but continuums along which we all position ourselves when relating to others. I think this positioning is one of the fundamental challenges of being human, and Lloyd Jones explores it in a novel which got me in from the get-go. In other words, I loved it.
This is a novel with a simple plot but a complex narrative. The plot concerns a young, poor African woman, a hotel worker, who leaves Africa using human-traffickers to find her son in Berlin. Why she does this is a shocking story revealed in the first chapter. The book follows her journey until its inevitable but not totally predictable conclusion.
What is particularly interesting about the book is how Jones has chosen to tell the story. It is divided into five parts:
1. What they said
The first two parts comprise 13 chapters, each named for the narrator telling that part of the story. All but one of the narrators are first person and they chronicle their experience with the woman (whom we come to know as Ines) as she journeys to and finally arrives in Berlin. The third person narrator is “The inspector”. Why he is third person initially mystified me, but it all becomes clear when he reappears in Ines’ part. As I was reading these early chapters, I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Chronicle of a death foretold because they sounded like witness statements (and that, in fact, is what we later discover they are). This is not, though, a whodunnit, any more than Marquez’s book is, although a death does occur. Intrigued? You should be.
Anyhow, it is in these early chapters that the “empathy” theme starts to play out as it is in them that we hear how Ines gets from Africa, via Italy, to Berlin. She is “helped” by a number of people including a truck driver, snail collector, an alpine hunter, a chess player and a film researcher. Some of these people help her expecting nothing, some help her only if she gives something in return (and I’m sure you can guess what that might be), some help her but would like something in return, some are unsure whether to help her or not, and so on. It certainly makes you wonder what you would do, how far out of your way you would go.
Suffice it to say, she makes it to Berlin, manages to find a job, and starts searching for her son. But, I won’t talk more on that, so you can discover for yourself how her story plays out. What I will talk about instead are some of the other features of the book that make it such an interesting read.
Several metaphors run through the novel, but they never feel overworked. One that I particularly liked concerns phantoms/ghosts. Lloyd uses them to describe the marginalised or dispossessed. The pastor (who better to talk about ghosts?) speaks of ghosts in a number of contexts, including:
The ghost remains a spectre, no more than a possibility. Something to be afraid of. A manifestation of fear, such as the opposition parties in each and every undemocratic regime in Africa.
The other ghosts – the real ghosts if I may call them that – are simply those whom we choose not to see.
Ines, of course, is one of these – and later, when she considers stealing her son, she talks of teaching him “to turn himself into a ghost”. Another motif that runs through the book is that of versions and lies. Most of the early narrators are not exactly reliable, several people do not go by their own name and there are references to things being transformed (such as snails which can change gender and lungfish which can live in and out of water). When Defoe describes the lungfish (below) we see its reference to the way people change, to how we can transform (for good) or dissemble (for ill, such as the father of Ines’ baby):
Now he arrived at the question that interested him. At which point does it become the one thing and cease to be the other? In becoming that new thing how much does it retain of the other?
One of the little side stories in this multilayered novel concerns the old blind man Ralf in whose household Ines finds work. We learn from Ralf’s ex-wife, Hannah, that after her gentle, kind father-in-law had died they found a photograph that revealed his secret past as a photographer of atrocities during the Nazi regime. Ralf’s inability to come to terms with his father’s contradictory, secret past brings about the breakdown of his marriage. Meanwhile, Ines lies, steals and pretends in order to achieve her goal of developing a relationship with her son:
I had to see him. And that need turned me into someone with no heart or conscience. I didn’t care how the money was earnt.
It is difficult in fact to know who the real Ines is … but she is a wounded soul. Who are we to judge? Throughout the novel, in fact, Jones confronts us with imperfect people and challenges us to consider both them and their circumstances. How far can, should, our empathy extend? Uncomfortable questions but ones we must face.
During Ines’ story she says “I was shown more kindness than abuse” which reminded me of Rieux’s statement at the end of The plague that “there are more things to admire in men to despise”. I like to think they’re right but, with Camus and Jones, I also know that we need books like this to remind us that we still have a way to go …
Lisa at ANZLitlovers also enjoyed this book.
Hand me down world
Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2010
16 thoughts on “Lloyd Jones, Hand me down world”
I’ve got Mr. Pip and Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance on my shelves and have yet to manage to read either of them. Now there is this one which sounds really good. Sigh. The lottery here is close to $200 million at the moment so I bought a ticket today. If I win the jackpot tomorrow night, I’m pretty sure I can arrange to have all the time to read that I want to 🙂
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you … ! I think $200, should just about do it.
Mr Pip is excellent too. That’s the only other one of his I’ve read.
Sounds excellent, Gummie. Does it tread into cliché at all? I particularly liked the way you selected the underlying theme of empathy. Today’s headlines shout that we could all do with a bit more of that.
Thanks Guy. No, I don’t think so. It’s too complex for that – there are no simple resolutions or judgments made and I think it’s in those situations that you tend to find cliche?
There are a lot of themes/issues covered in the book, but empathy seems to me to be the biggie, the one that overrides all the others. The opening quote comes in the last couple of pages of the book and the closing lines of the book hint at increasing empathy but don’t offer a universal resolution.
The book has flaws if you look for them – it gets a bit bogged down in the Defoe section, and the voices are not particularly individualised but his language is so clear that you don’t really mind. (In other words, I noticed but then realised it wasn’t really bothering me).
As you know, empathy is something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit recently, so I like this “pondering” on it that the novel/you portray. Hey, maybe one day I could go back to a PhD but in Psychology and study empathy! 😛
You could … then again you could look at it as a social phenomena? That would be really interesting.
This is sitting on my bookshelf and for acme reason I keep passing it over, however, I love an interesting us of narrative so you’ve just moved it to the top of the pile. Thank you, I might have taken it back to the library unread and that would clearly have been a major mistake.
Oh good Annie … I’d be really surprised if you were disappointed. The multiple PIV narrative – with one-off narrators, returning narrators and narrators who do a few chapters – make for a interesting book and I think he handles it well because he uses the approach to make some points about the moral conundrums we all face. You can see flaws in it as I said, but for me they were minor and easily passed over.
Interested in this one! Not available here yet, except in expensive import editions. Maybe you should nominate it for the 21st century fiction group! I’ll vote for it!
Great … remind me when the time comes! My f2f group liked it – some of us loved it, some liked it, but no-one hated it. There’s plenty to discuss – I only took one angle here.
I really enjoyed Mr Pip, and really want to read this book, so only skimmed what you wrote. One day I’ll have time to read all the books I mean to, want to.
I imagine you would enjoy this one too Louise … but I do understand the conundrum about all the books to read out there.
Very keen to read this one!
Can people stop writing books? I just can’t seem to keep up!
LOL Justine, know that feeling … let’s call a moratorium on writing. Tell them all to go on author tours for a year rather than write!
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