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Review: Hand me Down World by Lloyd Jones

In 2007, after publishing eight novels but none this side of the equator, Lloyd Jones's Mister Pips brought the New Zealander to the attention of the literary world at large.

It scooped the Commonwealth Prize, and was shortlisted for that year's Booker Prize.

In an interview given just days before the winner was announced (it eventually went to our own Anne Enright), hot favourite Jones was asked about the effect on his next novel.

"It has no impact whatsoever. I might write a book no one wants to read. The only expectation that matters is the one I have of myself," Jones insisted.

And any who feared the Antipodean author would struggle to step out from beneath the towering shadow cast by the success of Mister Pips should have taken Jones's word for it: Hand me down World is a brilliant, if at times difficult and uncomfortable, read.

At the novel's heart is an unnamed African woman on a quest, which takes her from Tunisia to Italy, and through Europe to Berlin, to be reunited with the child that was stolen from her. But the illegal immigrant's voice is not heard until the novel nears its end, and her story is relayed through the narratives of the people she encountered on her way.

We later discover the collator of these 'testimonies' is an Italian police inspector charged with piecing together the woman's journey. An elderly snail collector, a lonely truck driver and a hunting group high in the Italian Alps are some of the people who recall their encounters with the African.

The fact that the story of this woman, who 'borrows' the name Ines, is told for her, means she remains as a kind of silent void at the novel's core, an empty vessel into which those around her pour their own narratives.

As the novel progresses, these storytellers and their versions of events are shown to be both unreliable and tainted, full of omissions and distortions, tangential asides that ultimately reveal more about themselves than Ines. So much so that Hand Me Down World, at times, seems like a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

But just as the reader starts to weary of these disparate tales and the oblique relaying of Ines's story, Jones moves the narratives ever closer to the novel's female-shaped void, finally allowing Ines herself, now incarcerated in an Italian prison, to have her say.

However, the author thankfully eschews the traditional black-versus-white stereotypes of the post-colonial narrative; in fact, the man who steals Ines's child is black and German. And while Ines' story is handed along that human chain of storytellers from Sicily to Berlin like a Fedex package, the woman herself is much more aggressive. As much as she is wronged, abused, violated and duped, this mother seduces, steals, lies and betrays trusts in pursuit of her goal.

Jones was wrong back in 2007 when he said he could have been writing a novel nobody would want to read; everyone will want to read Hand Me Down World and few will be able to stop thinking about it after they do.

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