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----- Background -----
'Hearts and Minds' by Amanda Craig is one of three books that I randomly bought from Amazon (£4.19), without even checking what it was about first. The cover on my copy is different from the one in Dooyoo catalogue, with black background and the title written with different coloured letters.
The story begins with a description of a female body being dumped in a pond and I was glad that I bought a thriller as it is not normally my first choice when buying books.
'Hearts and Minds' initially seems like a collection of five different storylines, although the reader has a feeling that somehow they might be connected and that the earlier description of a woman's dead body might have something to do with all of them.
----- Main characters -----
We are introduced to the main characters in the book Polly, Katie, Ian, Ana and Job.
* Polly is a divorced mother of two. Her ex-husband moved out to United States and her new partner spends most of the time in Hollywood. Polly needs help with raising her two children, especially now that she has gone back to work as a lawyer, defending immigrants from deportation in court. Polly's au pair, Irina, who herself was an illegal immigrant from Russia, had recently disappeared without a word and Polly is finding it hard to tackle work and looking after her children.
* Katie has just come out of a long relationship. After finding out that her fiancé cheated on her with her best friend, she decided to literally leave the past behind. She decided to move from New York to London and start her life afresh.
* Ana is an illegal immigrant 15-year old girl from Ukraine. She fled her country in attempt to find work as a waitress in London and provide for her family back in Ukraine; however after arriving into UK found that she had been sold to work as a prostitute. I would like to point out here that there are several descriptions of rape and violence in this plot, so this will not be for you if you're easily offended.
* Ian came to UK from South Africa in order to start a new life. In South Africa he lived and worked with his mother and stepfather, but now he wants to become more independent and make something of himself. He also wants to meet his native father who lives in London and whom Ian has never seen before.
* Job fled Zimbabwe in order to escape torture and persecution from the government. He is working very hard to provide for his wife and sister back home, eventually hoping they will have enough money to escape as well. His main job is driving a cab, but he also works part time at a car wash. He feels very lonely without his family, with little money to survive on and no friends. He often experiences racism while living in London.
----- My opinion -----
The story takes place in London, which I think was a great choice of location for the book. London is such a big and cosmopolitan city and for all foreigners who think about starting a new life seems like an ideal place, where everything is possible. I am sure that for many British people London is a place to be as well.
In the book London is almost a separate character that has good and bad sides. It is such a welcoming and multicultural city, yet it can also be cold, unpleasant and harsh. Each of the main characters decided to live in London because of the potential career opportunities, money making, multiculturalism and freedom. However, each of them finds out that every place has its good and bad features. In spite of living next to 12 million people, you can still be lonely, have no friends and just be an unnoticed statistic.
The least interesting storyline for me was that of Katie and Rambler magazine. I found the supporting characters, dialogues and descriptions really boring and found those chapters difficult to get through. Ana's plot was interesting, but also difficult, especially at the beginning with descriptions of rape and violence.
Apart from introducing an interesting story, the book touches on the social subjects that have recently become popular discussion topics - issues of immigration (both legal and illegal), cultural differences, racism and divides between various 'classes' of people. It focuses on portraying immigrants as just human beings who have problems, worries and sometimes stray as well. The author challenges the view by many people that immigrants are just here to sponge off the benefits and that the law treats them better than local people. The reality is that most just try to live a better life than in their native country and are prepared to work hard to achieve something, if only they are allowed to.
At the beginning I thought that the author tries to present immigrants in a good light, compared to the natives. Amanda Craig cleverly introduced stereotypes about Poles, Russians, Pakistanis, Nigerians and other nations. I initially thought that the author was trying to say most British people think of immigrants as lazy, thieves, benefit spongers, uneducated and not speaking English. However, while I was reading it made me think whether were are not all a little bit prejudiced? The prejudices in the book are not only of British people towards immigrants. Some immigrants themselves are hostile to one another - claiming one nation or religion is better than another. There are immigrants in Britain that are against immigration themselves, but they drawing the line at their own feet only because they were lucky to get here first. By the time I finished the book, I thought that the author did not try to preach, but presented a balanced view in which there is no difference - there are decent people as well as not so decent in any nation.
In terms of ease of reading, the book starts quite slow with Polly's storyline. After that the chapters change between the main character's stories. There are no two chapters next to each other about the same character. On one hand, this slows down the whole story and is somewhat distracting. On the other hand, it allowed me to get to know each of the characters in more depth and therefore see their point of view and empathize with them. Although each of those plots seemed unrelated at the beginning, when I got further into the book I started noticing some connections in terms of facts and characters appearing in the plot.
I liked the fact that all characters, major and supporting, were there for a reason, that seemingly unimportant facts described in the book served a purpose later on. The more I got into reading, the more I could link the facts, characters and appreciate the way the author cleverly used them to link the lives of people from various ways of life. When I think of it, this is like the real life - from time to time we all realise that this is a small world we live in now that so many people travel.
The pace within each chapter itself was just right and made me want to read on and find out what was happening next. Personally, I get frustrated when reading a book with a long chapter, sometimes I get my eyes get really tired and I have to stop in the middle of the chapter, then come back to the book and have to go back a few pages to remind myself where I was in the story. The length of 'Heart and Mind' chapters was just a few pages, so I could pace my reading easily.
The chapters have just the right length. Not too long, so you cannot take a break from reading without getting lost when you eventually pick up the book again. They are also not too short so there's enough of the story in the chapter to keep the pace up and keep the reader interested. The chapters are numbered and titled, which makes it easier for the reader to keep track of what is happening in the book.
----- Final thoughts -----
Before I bought the book, I didn't know what it was about other than how it began - with a discovery of a young woman's body. I thought this was a thriller but in fact this book was not really about the murder but about the socio-cultural aspect of modern life. It made me think about the reality of today's multicultural world. We all travel, go to other countries, learn about other cultures, live in multicultural cities or countries, but there is still a lot of prejudice around and some people still don't accept it if someone is different.
The issue of immigration and being different is close to my heart as I am an immigrant myself. I could easily relate to various characters in the book, the situations they were in and their feelings as I have experienced some of them myself.
I would highly recommend this book as it is not only moving but it also makes the reader think about their own life, their attitudes and gives an interesting view on our modern society and cultural differences.
Author: Amanda Craig
Paperback, 422 pages
Price: £4.19 (on Amazon)
Published by Abacus 2010
Hearts and Minds is a novel which focuses on the daily lives of the immigrant community in the sometimes impersonal and always bustling city of London. Reading the blurb at the back of the book did not initially fill me with a huge desire to get stuck in - but I am not a Londoner and I think I was struggling with a bit of immigration fatigue (lots of immigrant 'bashing' in the media). I consider myself fairly liberal but this book changed my rather unimaginative ideas about immigration. I think it is a deeply riveting and worthwhile read.
The novel opens with the finding of a body in one of the ponds in Hampstead. I had just visited the women's swimming pond, for the first time, days before I read this novel. This was fortuitous as I could easily visualise the exact place the author described; a perfect location for a gruesome find because of the juxtaposition of the quiet,idyllic nature of this set of ponds and the pockets of densely wooded areas which could hide the crime and violence present in London. The reader does not know the identity of the body until much later in the novel but guessing starts quite early on. The narrative follows the lives of a number of characters who live in London: for most of them, England is not their home country and they are either legal or illegal immigrants. At the start of the novel, their lives are mostly separate but as the narrative progresses, the reader begins to see more and more links. Near the end of the novel, some understanding is gained as to the identity of the murder victim and the possible circumstances. More importantly, some comprehension is gained about the hardship and isolation, both physically and emotionally, that is suffered by people who are separated from lands and loved ones.
I found the structure of this novel to be perfect in examining the progressively entwined lives of these five, mostly new, Londoners. The book is episodic in nature with each chapter dealing with one specific character. As repeat character chapters occur, the reader begins to empathise more fully with each character. This is important as it begins to break down the barriers that some people may have about those who come to live in Great Britain from other countries - for whatever reason. It is gratifying, as you read to notice the parts of each character's life where the other characters make unknowing cameo appearances. This builds up the idea that the characters are all somehow connected - and that ultimately - we are all connected - sometimes in ways that we do not perceive. The novel is written in the third person.
I found both the main and the more marginal characters in this book to be well written and rounded. I was easily able to do the imaginative identikit on them and bring them to life in the narrative.
Perhaps the most pivotal character in this novel is Polly. She is a British lawyer working in the less lucrative area of immigration law and is dedicated to her clients as she recognises their harsh, poverty stricken and desperate lives. Polly also juggles her career with her role as a single parent of two children and some depressive tendencies linked with the breakdown of her marriage. One of the ways she addresses the frantic nature of her life is to employ an au pair. Using an immigrant au pair (less than the minimum wage) is the only way Polly can afford to run her life. When the au pair runs off, Polly's life descends into turmoil as her domestic routine is severely disrupted and her career is threatened.
This character is an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe who works two jobs on the meagre wages paid to those who live below the radar. His main job being a taxi driver. This is a character who challenges the tired stereotype of the immigrant. He is selfless, hard working and intrinsically good; performing acts of kindness that have major reverberations. He also dreams of leaving England and being reunited with his wife.
Through Anna, the lives of young women who are trafficked into the UK to work as sex slaves is described. She is only 15 and believes she has used her family's money to transport her, from the Ukraine, to a life as a waitress in London. Instead, she is imprisoned and raped. It is difficult to read Anna's story as it is a horrific depiction of what life is like , for countless women behind the rather dingy and innocent building facades of London and other cities.
Katie's story describes the world of an American immigrant. Her marriage to a British bloke has failed and she is making a brave attempt to start a new life in a flat in a rather rundown area in London. Even though she is the generally more socially acceptable face of immigration - being white and having fewer communication issues - she struggles with alienation in her work (in a typical middle class journalism environment) and in her personal life.
This character is a white South African immigrant working as a teacher in an inner city secondary school. He struggles to teach in a school of disengaged students: many who are from immigrant families. Daniel tries hard to do a good job in unfavourable circumstances. I found the account of Daniel's experiences to be the most satisfyingly accurate account of teaching in an inner city school that I have ever read. It showed the root of the issues of troubled schools to lie with a culture of social exclusion and poverty rather than resorting to the usual teacher-bashing of the media.The author had done much research and was informed by the experiences of real teachers.
Immigration is the primary theme of 'Hearts and Minds' - which is shown in many different guises and humanised. If you began the book as a reader who had some prejudiced opinions about the subject, then I think you would end the book as a person who has a more sympathetic and rounded view. This is a major achievement in itself given the weight of public opinion on immigration generally. The book urges the reader (and ultimately British society in general) to look beyond the label and consider the lives and circumstances of the immigrant population - particularly those who suffer extreme poverty, loneliness and alienation. Through the narrative it is shown that a more rounded view of those who share our country is ultimately a more sensible, safer, compassionate way of living.
Goodness is another important theme and Job is the character that mostly exhibits heroic acts of goodness which change lives - although other main characters also show a more domestic form of good. Good is shown as a positive force and is a challenge to the more negative characters/traits that the protagonists fight in their daily lives (pimps, liars, racists, misogynists, terrorists, prejudice, murderers). It is this theme that makes the novel a contemporary fight against evil and forces the reader to confront any evil (prejudice) that may be within.
City life is a difficult experience for many people but this novel places a magnifying glass over the lives of people who are struggling, to varying degrees, as immigrants. Instead of being cut off from these lives, the reader takes an in depth look at them. This process re-humanises a group of people who are not always treated so sympathetically by the modern media. I find it hard to express how important and necessary I think this process is -and this novel has done this skillfully.
We are often reminded that we (society) should learn the lessons of the holocaust so that it never happens again but I often see, or experience, the fear and the hate (that are some of the conditions that create terror) in everyday life. This book is a worthy book as it challenges this - as well as being an extremely entertaining read - which had me peeping at later chapters such was my desire to find out what happens next.
Given that many UK citizens have concerns about overcrowding and jobs when considering immigration, it is glaringly obvious that this is an area that Amanda Craig does not really discuss. Her more embedded opinion on this matter is shown in the reality of the immigrants' lives. Many do not wish to remain here indefinitely. We see one of the main characters leaving London at the end of the novel. There is at least one other character who may also do the same, given the opportunity. Choice and opportunity are not as simple as some would make out. It is also made clear in the novel that many of the immigrant population contribute significantly more (economically and socially) to UK life than they take.
I really enjoyed this book on many different levels and would recommend it.
Mental note to self: buy a Big Issue from the Ukrainian woman who stands outside Wilkinsons.
Having picked this up for 50p in a charity shop as I liked the cover was interested to know what this book would be about.
Set in the current time in London the story focusses on the underworld of illegal immigrants as 5 interlinking stories meet.
Polly - a human rights lawyer who spends all of her time working with immigrants before they are deported. Despite this she employs a nanny who is not in the country legally which seemed to me to be a real contradiction in terms. The character of Polly, whilst seeming at time like a bleeding heart liberal develops throughout the novel as she is forced to see both the good and bad side of illegal immigration.
Job - A Zimbabwean illegal immigrant who works as a taxi driver and car washer. A character that I found it very hard to dislike - you are given strong insight to his character and the reason that he is over in the UK. Amanda Craig uses this character to challenge lots of the common perceptions that people may have about why foreigners come over to the UK. A strong character who emphasised the point that not all illegals want benefits and a free ride in the UK, or even want to stay here!
Katie - A US journalist working in London to escape a broken heart. She is extremely isolated within the UK and it is interesting to see her point of view as it develops!
Anna - a 15 year old Lithuanian girl duped into being trafficed into the UK to work in a brothel. Again, challenges the popular view of many of the tabloids that people want to come over to the UK for a free ride and no work. The story again doesnt hide any of the gruesome details involved in people smuggling and prostitution and again you are forced to feel sympathy for her, but also admiration!
Daniel - A white south african teacher working in an inner london school where few of the pupils speak English. Again, as a legal immigrant a different view on the world.
No spoilers I promise but the novel begins with the finding of a girls body on Hampstead Heath. Somehow there are links to each of the main characters and as the plot unravels the mystery is slowly sold.
The story is told in the third person with chapters alternating between each of the main characters. Craig has a wonderful talent for drawing the reader in and making them really care about what happens to her characters. She has a style which is very easy to read, and allows you to read without trying but to focus on the large issues that she wants you to focus on!
A spectrum of issues including murder, prostitution, prejudice, racism, terrorism. I found myself examining prejudices that I didn't know that I had and thinking again whether I truly believed them or not.
I don't agree with all of Craig's issues - her view does appear to be that the UK is an island which ought to be making room for all that want to come here, without really offering any practical solutions!
She does strongly refute the view that the UK is the benefit capital of the world and that is the only reason people want to come here!
A read which manages to have a good murder mystery plot - a classic "whodunnit" with huge moral issues being brought up throughout. On top of this the relationship between each of the characters is allowed to grow, and seem very real.
A book that will make you think!