Category Archives: Craig Amanda

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Some years ago, I read a magazine article in which the author declared that what the literary world so badly needs is another writer like Dickens–someone whose novels bring social problems to the attention of readers. It’s been years since I read the article, and I really can’t remember the specifics, but the article’s essential idea stayed with me.

hearts and mindsI just finished reading Amanda Craig’s novel, Hearts and Minds, and I can’t help but compare the book to Dickens in its scope and its sweeping integrative approach to social ills. While Hearts and Minds is, above all, a novel of social conscience, it also manages to be a wonderful, highly readable tale–mystery, adventure, romance, drama and despair all rolled into a lively commentary on 21st century London.

Craig creates a tremendously ambitious novel of modern London, plagued with crime, illegal immigration, prostitution, and terrorism. And while like Dickens, Craig’s characters collide in moments of amazing coincidence, the Dickens twee is absent. Instead this is 21st century London–a city that survived the Plague, the Great Fire and now terrorism. This is the city to which illegal immigrants flock as they escape from violence, civil war, genocide, starvation, and collapsing civilisations. Unfortunately, while these refugees flee their homes and hope for better lives in London, some face the very same sort of violence they ran from. While a lucky few are employed illegally as au pairs or domestics by the wealthy, others endure subsistence level lives. But these are the fortunate ones. Others vanish into the brothels of London.

Very much like a Victorian multi-plot novel–complete with titled chapters, Hearts and Minds does not follow a single story stream, and instead the book presents a tapestry of characters whose lives are integrated in ways they sometimes don’t understand. Some of the characters connect, and others pass each other silently, unaware of the invisible cords that bind them together. In spite of the large number of characters and the splintered stories, the novel’s many threads are held together with strong authorial control.

Hearts and Minds begins with this passage:

“At night, even in these dead months of the year, the city is never wholly dark. Its shadows twitch with a harsh orange light that glows, as the pulse of electric power courses through its body like dreams. The sour air, breathed in and out by eight million lungs, stained by exhaust pipes and strained through ventilators is never clean, although, after a time, you no longer notice its bitter taste and smell. The dust of ages swirls and falls, staining walls, darkening glass, coating surfaces, clogging lungs. Bricks, leaves, paper, food, bones and skin all decay, reduced to almost invisible specks that accumulate in the eternal dust of London.” 

This passage sets the scene of an ancient yet somehow ageless London, but Craig also includes the idea that the city will survive–even as humans decay and add to its detritus. While London withstands the onslaughts of time, disease, natural disaster and political violence, the city is also plagued with numerous, perhaps insurmountable social problems. In 21st century Britain, millions are packing their suitcases and retiring abroad, overwhelmed teachers are under siege from pupils who are “like a boatload of disgruntled voyagers, off along the dark river of indifference,” and the overworked and underfunded National Health Service is dying a slow, painful death.

While some see only the tourist attractions and the glamorous side of London (“a man in a Victorian policeman’s uniform waits outside the non-existent Sherlock Holmes’s non-existent flat 221B for the delectation of tourists”), this vast city also has a dark underbelly. Neighbourhood brothels manage to maintain a booming business right under the oblivious noses of those who live next door. While some neighbourhoods have decayed, still others have been absorbed and gentrified in the economic boom. London is portrayed as a city with multiple faces and it’s a largely disinterested backdrop to crime. Meanwhile Londoners don’t seem to notice the invisible immigrant population who clean the streets, drive the taxis, and operate the car washes.

One of the novel’s main characters is Polly, a human-rights solicitor, and a single parent with two teenagers, Robbie and Tania. Polly doesn’t know how she would cope with the competing demands in her life if it weren’t for her housekeeper, her “right hand,” Iryna. Polly relies on Iryna completely, and tries not to dwell on the thought that Iryna, a Russian is illegal and works for a pittance–twenty-five hours a week for seventy pounds.

Polly’s world comes crashing down when Iryna disappears. As she discusses the subject with friends and acquaintances, the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘what else did you expect?’ But just as Polly convinces herself that Iryna betrayed her trust, she has reason to suspect that something may be horribly wrong. Iryna, a young, attractive woman, who has a history of being extremely reliable, has vanished, and yet Polly fails to initially contemplate the horrifying possibilities.  Under normal circumstances, Polly would contact the police, but this doesn’t occur to her. If anyone is capable of grasping the problems facing an illegal immigrant, it should be human-rights solicitor Polly. But when Iryna disappears, Polly isn’t alarmed, she’s inconvenienced.

As the novel continues, other characters are introduced: Katie, an American editorial assistant who works at the offices of The Rambler magazine, Ian–an idealistic and dedicated teacher from South Africa, Quentin, the Rambler‘s colourful, tyrannical and sexist blast-from-the past editor, Anna–a 15 year-old Ukrainian girl who imagines she’s coming to London to be a maid, and Job–from Zimbabwe who works two jobs in order to send money home to his family. How these people connect is the substance of this marvelous novel.

The feeling that Hearts and Minds is very like an updated Dickens tale is not based solely on the novel’s scope or its quality as a novel of sweeping social conscience. The Dickens connection is also manifested in the character of Job–an educated, sensitive man who comes to Britain complete with notions of the country’s values which are largely garnered from classics of British literature–including… Dickens:

“Job has walked, amazed, round every museum he can find on Sundays, where people from all over the globe wander in to enjoy the most beautiful painting, inventions, buildings. He can’t join a public library, but the cheapness of second- hand paperbacks on stalls and in charity shops almost made him weak. There is an abundance of everything–food dropped half-eaten on the pavement that goes to feed birds or rats–and yet a consciousness of nothing. He thinks of the city conjured for him by Dickens; that foggy, dark place  riddled with crime and yet suffused with kindness and courage. He had been a little disappointed when he arrived to find the soot had been scoured away during the last century, and no horse-drawn carriages. Yet there are still men like Bill Sykes, with their dogs and violence. He sees them right outside his home.”

The novel’s characters are woven into the firm hierarchy of London society–from those who employ illegal immigrants for pitiful wages, to those illegals who are exploited for anonymous sex. Multiple points of view and multiple opinions illustrate opposing values that generally collide on the subject of immigration and illegal labour. At a swank dinner party, for example, one character notes that “we’re sleepwalking into making the poor old British working class completely unemployable,” while another character basically argues that British “workmen” are going to get what they deserve as “they never work hard enough”.

Craig doesn’t fall into the trap of offering solutions, and that’s just as well as I’m not sure there are any. Nonetheless, in Craig’s London, even those buffered by wealth and position cannot imagine that they are free from the taint of illegal immigration, and that’s an uncomfortable thought. I’ll clarify here: Our actions have moral consequences. If you are well off enough to employ an illegal maid to clean your toilets, then you too are implicitly involved with the fallout.  The ‘halycon’ days of British Empire are over, and colonialism has consequences:

“When we invaded placed like Africa and India, we broke down a door, and now we don’t like it that they can come over here, just as we went there. Well tough. It’s not just a question of morality. There is no us and them. There’s just people. We’re all migrants from somewhere.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Craig Amanda

In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig

I’m not a professional writer, so I don’t know what it feels like to write a novel and agonize over every word, each chapter, and the final product. One thing that I wonder about though is just how much attention some authors put into the first few pages. I’ve noticed that Hard Case Crime  titles, for example tend to be page one attention grabbers. And this brings me to Amanda Craig’s novel In a Dark Wood. The novel successfully grabbed my attention with its opening passages, and from that moment I was committed to the end. This was the first Craig novel for me, so I had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to give away too much of the book’s plot, but I will say that the author led me down the garden path, and I throughly enjoyed every minute of it.

In a dark woodThe story is told through the eyes of Benedick Hunter, an unemployed actor who is on the brink of middle age. His wife, successful author Georgina, has taken the children and moved in with her lover. When the book begins, Benedick has sold the family home and is packing to leave. He is engaged in the gruesome, depressing  task of separating his books from those that belong to Georgina. This is a perfect passage that will be fully understood by readers who’ve ever had to break up personal libraries. Books collected over the years represent a life spent together and to separate books into two piles feels like an amputation:

“I was trying to separate my possessions from those of my wife, Georgina. A biography in books, this is why some people scan your shelves, in the manner of a Roman seer gazing at entrails. There were duplicate editions of T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, of Beckett, Pinter and Joyce. My own copies of Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Waugh jumbled up with her Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes–the male versus the female canon. The plays I had been in, with my parts underlined in lurid orange. Her university texts, with notes scribbled in pencil or biro. Then single volumes, signifying union: paperbacks stained with the oils of lost summers, whose cracked spines still released cascades of fine sand or faded blades of pale grass: hardbacks generously inscribed to mark birthdays or Christmas, passed from one to the other at bedtime as a preliminary to love; bound proofs of new books, battered ghosts of old ones. All of these, left for me to divide and put into boxes. She had taken the children’s books , as she had taken the children. We had been separated now for over a year, and were getting divorced.”

Sifting through the books, Benedick comes across North of Nowhere, one of several books of fairy tales written by his long-deceased mother, Laura. Although most of Laura’s books are now out of print, she has become, in death, a “minor cult figure” and a favourite with academics with a feminist bent. In spite of Laura’s slight celebrity, Benedick knows remarkably little about his mother. She committed suicide when he was a small child, and he has no memories of her whatsoever.

Following the sale of the house, Benedick moves in with Ruth, the mother of one of his long-time childhood friends. Benedick  indulges in days spent in self-pitying mode, and with a good amount of time on his hands, he begins to ask questions about his American mother. Those who knew Laura have only the sketchiest details of her life before she arrived in London. Benedick meets various people who were connected with his mother in some way, and their  memories evoke a different world–the world of 1960s London. But instead of finding answers, Benedick uncovers contrasting, fragmented memories of Laura. Some people loved her and considered her extremely talented; others disliked Laura, and instead of a solid image of Laura emerging, it seems that she was a complex woman no one really understood. Benedick’s father, the bombastic Howard, now remarried, doesn’t want to discuss his long dead wife, and squashes any discussion of the past.

As the novel develops, Benedick gradually unravels. Aggressively pursed by single, desperate women, unable to get another acting role, and pressured by Georgina to take the children, Benedick finds that instead of getting over the divorce, he’s much less able to cope. Turning increasingly to his mother’s stories,which are weaved into the plot,  he feels compelled to uncover the mystery of Laura’s death. 

Bitterly funny in spots, the peevish Benedick (called Dick Hunter by some), is too busy wallowing in self-pity to realise that he has a problem. Everything wrong in his life is someone else’s fault–from his failed auditions, and his feeble attempts at fatherhood,  to his soured marriage–someone else is  always to blame:

“Just before she left me, she had been writing a column about her life, in which I featured largely as a neurotic layabout who spent all our money on absurdities and left her to cope with the ensuing disaster.”

While on one level the book is the tale of one man’s disaster of a life, on another level, Craig effectively creates a subtle, dark,  and slightly twisted modern day fairy tale with Benedick as the unlikely, sometimes nasty protagonist whose quest is to uncover the truth about his mother. But that said, don’t underestimate this excellent novel….

Using the male-point-of-view, Craig very capably creates the world through Benedick’s eyes, and this is rather curious as in many ways Craig’s subject matter reminds me of Fay Weldon. Craig, however, is definitely a post-Weldon author. In A Dark Wood is reminiscent of the best of Weldon but without the between-the-sexes savagery and customary male bashing. While Benedick’s parents, Howard & Laura, could easily slip into the plot of a Weldon novel with its themes of infidelity, feminism, gender inequality, and the battles between the sexes,  Benedick is absolutely a post-Weldon, post-feminist creation– a man who’s overwhelmed by his children and who battles with a sense of failure while shamed by his wife’s success.

2 Comments

Filed under Craig Amanda