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Widely known for her literary writing, broadsheet columns and reviews, Amanda Craig crosses boundaries with her most recent novel, Hearts and Minds. It is a story of contemporary London life and one that examines the support systems many rely upon. As such, it is never far away from illegality and crime. But the novel’s tendrils extend further, and firmly into the underbelly of the seething corruption of fellow humankind that lies beneath the veneer of London’s affluence. Craig acknowledges that one part of the economy has come to depend on the other. Where the pretty and the ugly sit alongside, she takes off the lid and invites the reader to re-examine their perceptions. For in that ugly mass may lie true beauty or the simple desperation for a decent life.
Opening with the scene of the body of a young women being deposited on Hampstead Heath, it is quickly obvious to the reader whose body it is. But what follows is a very clever story told, where we move from one character to another, viewing their lives and frustrations until the web that connects them is exposed.
Polly is the newly single mother of two children who works as a lawyer protecting the rights of immigrants as they seek to settle in this country. Her immigrant nanny disappears and, she assumes has simply walked out, moved on. Her immediate struggle is with organising child care, to ensure she can continue to function in her job.
Ian is a teacher from South Africa and as he cycles to work he passes the scene on the Heath where he frowns in puzzlement, wondering what is going on. His journey takes him to an underperforming inner-city school where he does his best, where he strives to make a difference.
Job has fled from Zimbabwe and his London life sees him scrambling for work to earn money to send home for his wife, who remained there. He hopes she still gains the benefit of his income as he has not heard from her in a while. He hopes she is still alive. Job performs two jobs: one as a taxi driver where he meets hostility because he is the only black man and the other as a car washer where he is open to abuse. In Zimbabwe he had been educated and worked as a teacher.
Anna is young and from eastern Europe. Her need to assert her independence and to escape the drudgery of child care for her own family of younger siblings leads her to pay for a passage to London, with her grandmother’s encouragement. But a life of promise, of modelling or even waitressing, does not materialise. She soon realises that she is in the environment of forced prostitution.
Katie has escaped to London for another reason. She was about to become a trophy wife of a fellow American, before it all went wrong. Now, she seeks to make her own course in life through her work and she toils for an established and esteemed British publication on a low salary, and enduring a low status in the office as well as a small flat that cries desperately to see life again.
Hearts and Minds follows the lives of all these characters, eventually exposing how close and connected their lives are. It makes for an emotional read where Craig tells it like it really is at the optimum level of detail; never gratuitous in explanation and never vague. Only a cold person with no empathy would fail to be drawn in to this story. The drawing in is quick and the pages turn themselves. As a reader, you want to know what happens and how circumstances may be resolved, if at all. As a reader, justice is what you want to see served. (I will admit that I cried on more than one occasion.)
Hearts and Minds is without doubt a literary novel, but it does press on the crime genre. As a reader of crime fiction I seek realism and the sense of justice. To date in 2010, Hearts and Minds has been the most satisfying read for me and I recommend it highly; it is a very engaging and exceptionally well-written novel. The achievement is more so as the novel was delivered ‘…four years late due to long illness and multiple surgery.’ To have that level of interruption and deliver such a fine novel is a testament to the author’s skill. Craig dedicated the novel to her late father and noted in the acknowledgements that he died, sadly, one week before it was completed. I can only imagine how proud he would have been, for such a fine novel from his daughter.
If you, like me, appreciate the sense of justice in your crime reading; realism; superb writing and story telling; an emotionally engaging read; characters so well-drawn that they become so close to you – then I heartily recommend Hearts and Minds. Please, don’t miss out on this one!
My thanks to the author for the copy read.
Author website: Amanda Craig.