So I pick up a book, open it and read it.
Well not quite because inbetween the picking up and the opening there is an inordinate amount of time spent choosing a bookmark, and I need to know that this isn't just a foible of mine...do you all do this?
I mean how awful it would be to have the wrong bookmark for the book, I'd just not be able to sleep for the incongruence of the thing.
It's all a delicate mess waiting to happen but for my recent read of Amanda Craig's latest novel Hearts and Minds I turned to the Margaret Calkin James selection.
Quite by chance I decided that this one would do nicely, the book was about London after all.
By page two bodies are being deposited on the Heath so I knew I was warm with my bookmark choice and things could proceed.
Hampstead Heath and indeed Kenwood do feature large and as a unique contrast to elsewhere in London,
'Here it is scented with early spring flowers; over in Hackney it's hot chip oil.'
Well proceed things most certainly did and at a rattling pace too, this became my unputdownable book of the moment and I had a few '1.30am and still reading' nights with this one.
The lives of a cross-section of twenty-first century Londoners are shaken out and pegged on the line in full view of the neighbours and in that way that can only make you think as you read, here but for the Boz drawings is the Dickensian novel of our time. If anyone needs to know in a hundred years time what London might have been like in the Noughties they could do no better than read The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy and Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig and they'll have it sorted. Two contrasting perspectives, both exceptional social novels of today, in fact you can just imagine the OU exam question now,
"The London of the early twenty-first century was both sordid and violent yet vibrant and multicultural, how could these disparate and seemingly dissident and conflicting levels of society coexist comfortably in an area of just 659 square miles without recourse to civil war. Discuss with careful analysis of two contemporaneous texts of your choice."
An astutely portrayed cast of characters tell this story and slowly Hearts and Minds becomes a book of both contrasts and similarities because everyone's under pressure and many and varied are the forms of slavery and entrapment; to work, to a lifestyle, to a master, to a mistress, to a past life, to a dream, to money, to poverty, to misguided values and Amanda Craig has rolled out a great big canvas on which to explore them all. That veil between sorrow and misery and happiness and contentment far thinner than ever before in this version of London, 'the city of work not play', the city where for so many it seems like 'nobody knows or cares'.
Polly the immigration lawyer, divorced from the cash-rich, emotion-poor husband, trying to hold down a job and raise two children in the Farrow & Ball painted house with the potted olive tree but on just the wrong side of Islington. For all her principles Polly is one of the many thousands who have to turn a blind eye and rely on illegal immigrants for the support to keep their Smeg fridges filled and their children cared for and it is this sub-strata that is so astutely exposed and examined by Amanda Craig,
'glimpses of all the lives happening in other houses...so many lives all going on, not quite touching, all so different yet...linked by place and time.'
It's true when you live in Devon you don't really pay too much attention to this sort of thing so it was all quite an education to read about the trafficking of the Ukranian girls to work in sexual slavery, fifteen year-old Anna that 'shattered creature' finding herself imprisoned and put to work at Poshlust.
Job the black school teacher who has fled persecution in Zimbabwe and scrapes a living as a cab driver.
Ian the white school teacher from South Africa where he is no longer able to find work, jobs now designated for the black population and so he finds himself in a London sink comprehensive just inches away from special measures where crowd control is the extent of his working day.
Job invested with the solemn wisdom of his namesake doesn't take long to put his finger on the deep malaise,
'It is what the white man has given them, this great longing, this curiosity and thirst to learn more; but here in the white man's own country, children have lost it.'
and somehow Amanda Craig touches on the reality and the truth of this and you really do want to weep.
Just like you'd weep for portrayals of little boys being abducted by gangs of pickpockets and taken out on thieving trips by rough men with pit bull terriers who then murder their girlfriends and come to a sticky end themselves.
The lives touch and glance off each other, intricate plot threads lead all over the capital, a wonderful one woven around a London magazine called The Rambler, lots of almost-but-not-quite recognisable characters cleverly constructed to entertain and inform, and in essence I think that is what Hearts and Minds achieves in full measure.The whole rapidly becoming a beautifully written and quite mesmerising page-turner.
Contemporaneous detail added hugely to my enjoyment and if only we'd thought to ask Amanda Craig we'd have known all about the credit crunch coming because hints of financial collapse are cleverly and clearly foretold in this book.
As usual you don't have to take my word for it, three copies of Hearts and Minds ready and waiting to go to three lucky winners worldwide and The Artful Dodger will of course do his stuff. I'm also very excited because Amanda Craig will be submitting to the gentle glow of the standard lamp and we'll be forcing a virtual cream tea on her as she settles into the plumped up cushions of the 'dovegreyreader asks...' armchair any day now.