Hand Me Down World: A Novel

  • Lloyd Jones
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 313 pp.

In this nuanced and beautifully written novel, a large cast of characters aids a young African woman in her search across Europe to reclaim her child.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

Hand Me Down World is the story of a young African woman’s search for her young son, an odyssey that takes her from Tunisia to Berlin. We come to know her as Ines, although late in the novel it’s revealed that she acquired this name from someone else. She meets her son’s father, Jermayne, when he is a tourist staying at the hotel in Tunisia where she works. Jermayne rents an apartment for her to deliver their child, has her sign papers she does not understand, and disappears with their baby boy.

She pays smugglers to take her across the Mediterranean; they abandon her at a buoy off the coast of Italy. She struggles ashore, through Italy, across the Alps, and to Berlin, trying to cope with a strange city where she knows no one and cannot speak a word of the language, searching for one little boy.

We first learn her story from the people she meets on her journey: a colleague at the hotel where she worked in Tunisia, a truck driver who gives her a ride, a snail collector, hunters in the Alps, a French street artist in Berlin, a pastor of the Ibo order, a blind man named Ralf who employs her as a housekeeper, a film-maker who comes to live with them, Ralf’s estranged wife, the inspector investigating her case. Late in the book, we hear the same narrative from Ines’ point of view. Jones handles these different voices with skill. Their contradictions and corroborations are subtle and interesting, each person’s needs and assumptions distinct.

Yet, intriguing holes exist in the narrative. We never find out Ines’ real name, nor what African country she comes from because she never says, and the people who bothered to ask say they have forgotten. Although there is much political polemic that could be wrung from this story, most is confined to a short narrative by the Ibo Catholic priest who speaks of the invisibility of African immigrants, particularly those who struggle across the Mediterranean from Libya. He says flatly, “The biggest human trafficker is Libya,” and writes that Gadaffi has built a huge detention center in Libya for Africans who make it to Europe and are detained. They are flown back, not where they came from, but to this detention center, where, he says, they “turn into ghosts.”

Ines escapes that fate, though, and finds people who help her, and some who hurt her, all for reasons of their own. In the other characters’ narratives she is almost a blank slate, someone who says very little, but is a compelling, quiet presence in her smart blue coat — a blue coat that first belonged to someone else. Although Ines is mostly a sympathetic character, she also uses people for her own ends, stealing from Ralf and pressuring her street-artist friend for cash he can ill afford to give her. She describes her desire to find her son and connect with him as a need “that will bend everything to its will.” She does find her son, but Jermayne exploits her need for contact, extorting money for each visit. Late in the book someone asks her why she didn’t go to the police, and she says the answer is simple: “It never occurred to me to do so. It never occurred to me that the authorities would help.”

Author Lloyd Jones is a New Zealander whose novel Mr. Pip won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In Hand Me Down World he has written a perceptive and provocative novel, remarkable not only for its interwoven narrative but also for wonderful descriptions: he writes of a Sunday afternoon in a park “whose hills and winding paths are built on top of war rubble and the dead,” where “the light is green and filtered,” where “the layers of the world coming into being and departing are more obvious.” The coming of spring into Berlin: “For months on end it was hard to believe in spring, in the very idea of its existence, but then it came without warning.” That is just what it does in northern latitudes.

There are many passages in the book that provoke reflection; the description of Ralf’s efforts to memorize his wife’s face, flowers and important photographs when he realizes he’s losing his sight; Ines remarks that she is “captured, caged” like an animal at the zoo, so when the inspector in her case talks to her, she says “At the zoo the animals stare back.” That is what she does. The inspector continues to visit her after she is convicted of a crime, and he is kind to her, bringing her a photo of her son, and bread that his wife makes. We do not find out why the inspector chooses to be kind to her. That is one of the spaces in the book the reader is left to fill.

Hand Me Down World is a work that offers the reader the chance to fill in a number of spaces, just as the different narrators fill in spaces in a way that reflects their own needs and their own struggles for redemption. For a reader who enjoys meeting such demands, and who enjoys a nuanced, thought-provoking work of fiction, Hand Me Down World is an excellent choice.

Susan Storer Clark, a former broadcast journalist and a retired civil servant, has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years and contributes frequently to the The Independent. She has completed her first novel, with the working title “Arising From Infamy,” which is set in 19th century America and features as the central character the fictionalized daughter of a real person, “the infamous Maria Monk.”

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