Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the whole town's talking about the Jones boy !

The Jones boy is on a roll. That is the Lloyd Jones boy of course. With one exception the reviews of his latest, much-awaited novel, have been laudatory and I must say having just read Hand Me Down World that it is a marvellous, worthy follow-up to the immensely  internationally successful, Man-Booker Prize shortlisted title, Mister Pip.
Believe me this new title is an astonishing piece of fiction.

Where does this man get his ideas from? Every one of his titles has been so totally different from the others -
Gilmore's Dairy (1985)
Splinter (1988)
Swimming to Australia, and Other Stories (1991)
Biografi: An Albanian Quest (1993) – a New York Times Notable Book.
This House Has Three Walls (1997)
Choo Woo (1998)

Book of Fame (2000) - winner of the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (2002) - shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Napoleon and the Chicken Farmer (2003) - winner of the Honour Award at the NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2004.
Paint Your Wife (2004)

Mister Pip (2006) - recipient of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book in South East Asia and the South Pacific. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007.

Hand Me Down World (2010)

Quite a publishing record.
My pick is that Hand Me Down World will be an award winner too, watch out for it on the Man Booker longlist next year.

Here is the review from The Guardian by Joanna Briscoe which starts -

This is, to make a bold claim, an extraordinary novel. At its centre is a quest, its solution easily found, undertaken by a character who is little more than a void. Hand Me Down World is the story of a nameless woman whose history, emotions and responses are foggily obscure, and yet we will follow her to the end, hopelessly in the thrall of her overriding motive: to be with her abducted child.

While Paula Green's intelligent and thoughtful review in the NZ Herald's excellent Canvas magazine on October 30 reads in part as follows:

Lloyd Jones' new novel will unavoidably face the towering legacy of Mister Pip: international acclaim, a Man Booker short-list placing, awards, local admiration, sales and a degree of controversy. I wanted to read this book away from the Mister Pip hullabaloo and let it speak for itself. Like a 10th child.

I was immediately hooked by the resonating title and by the light-footed sentences in the first pages. I like the idea of a second-hand world that we inherit through word of mouth, other stories, other lives, memory, history and so on.

Interestingly, Jones sets up an immediate parallel with Mister Pip in that he adopts a persona at arm's length to his own - that of a woman. Young, black, African. This caused discomfort for some readers of the previous book. How can an older white male imagine himself inside the head of a younger black woman?

You can argue that throughout time writers have harnessed imagination to step into the shoes of another and that literature would be impoverished if we only ever wrote from within our own. Writing out of another's shoes might depend upon research, imagination and a universal core of human behaviour (we love, we die, we give birth, we fight, we communicate).

You could also argue that in some cases stepping into the shoes of another is to colonise. The writer is in danger of getting it wrong to the point where a character is recognised as neither female nor black nor young.

For me, the issues Hand Me Down World raises form a significant but sideways engagement with the book. This is a book that grows on you, first and foremost as story, with its lingering aftertaste.

A nameless woman is used in a scurrilous trick by a couple wanting a baby. She travels in search of her missing child from an African coastal town to Berlin. She meets a carousel of characters on the way from the truck driver to the elderly snail collector to the chess player to the alpine hunter and guide.

The nameless woman is like a hollow in the text about whom we know so little. She can speak three words of French. She eats voraciously without heed for taste. The other characters get to fill her in for us in minuscule degrees.

The nameless woman will also do anything to achieve her goal. She ends up sleeping rough with a charitable Frenchman. She ends up caring for a blind man and does an exemplary job of making tea and arranging flowers but is hopeless at returning the world to him through language.

Mister Pip highlighted the power of reading, whereas Hand Me Down World highlights the power of story. We are all made of skin and bone and blood, but this novel shows how we are made of story, how the stories that others tell about us begin to jostle with the stories we tell about ourselves.

Jones has written a book that may or may not gain awards and international acclaim, but he has written a book to be admired, to be discussed, to be treasured.

He may not wear the shoes of a young black woman who has lost her baby, but by the end of the novel I recognised the dimensions of loss. I was moved. I was enthralled. This is a writer who knows how to tell a story, deftly, surprisingly, magnificently.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.
Her full review can be read at NZH.

There have been numerous reviews in other UK, Australian and NZ newspapers all positive except for the rather academic review by Jolisa Gracewood  that appeared in the NZ Listener November 13 issue which started as follows:

Lloyd Jones’s follow-up to Mister Pip is a high-concept kaleidoscope of narrators that stumbles at the first hurdle, since everyone speaks the same fluent Novelese.

I have to say it was not a problem for me, I enjoyed the story beginning to end and found it diufficult to put down.
The week before in the NZ Listener of November 6 there was a major story on Jones by Diana Wichtel called Along Came Jones. Here is an extract

There’s a central motif in Lloyd Jones’s new book, Hand Me Down World, involving Ralf’s increasing obsession with a photograph from the war that his late father, Otto, had kept hidden. It shows a ravine in the Ukraine, filled with the bodies of women, some dead and some still alive. “Otto had been a photographer assigned to the killing units employed to round up the Jews in the Far East”, Ralf learns. Trying to absorb the knowledge that his beloved father recorded unthinkable atrocities, Ralf must have this photo constantly described to him, in increasing detail, even assigning victims names. A metaphor for the writer tackling the unimaginable? “I’ll let you do that,” says Jones. “I don’t want to tell people how to read it.” But the Holocaust is a subject that resonates for him. “My kids are Jewish,” he says, of his two sons and a daughter. His ex-wife’s grand¬parents emigrated from Russia.

He’s written about what he has called the “Lord of the Flies scenario” of social disintegration and atrocities that happened during the blockade in Bougainville. Years ago, in Moldova, he heard a first-hand account of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe shooting squad scene like the one in the Hand Me Down World photo. Women forced to hold their babies above their heads. “So the mother would feel the blood on them. Then they’d shoot the mother and they’d go in the pit,” he says.

This is where we have our argument. Incomprehensible, I say, of such inhuman behaviour. Not at all, says Jones. In Mister Pip people are chopped up and fed to the pigs. “This is not normal behaviour. But if you are cut off from society and if the whole conditions of living are about brutality, brutalising the other, then we quickly descend into that.” Given extreme conditions, he believes, any of us could. Not, surely, I plead, target practice with babies. “You’ve got to be joking,” he says. “There are 3000 gang members in this country who, if pissed, would probably do that at the drop of a hat.” Surely not, I groan …

This carries on for some time. The conversation is so absorbing I almost forget to interview him. Which probably suits him fine. But his seems a bleak view of humanity. Is he optimistic, at all? “I think I am. Kind of,” he says. “I don’t know what the hell I am actually,” he decides. “Perhaps that’s the next project.”

Yes Jones is certainly the writer of the hour, his various publishers around the world, Penguin in NZ, Text in Australia, and John Murray in the UK must be delighted with the attention this new title is attracting.

Text Publishing in Australia published the title simutaneously in hardcover and trade paperback while Penguin Books in NZ only published a trade paperback edition. On finding demand for a hardcover version Penguin did a deal with Text (whom they represent in NZ) to sell the Text hardcover edition alongside their own paperback version. Good thinking guys, I like the hardback edition very much. Not cheap at $55 but this is a book I want to keep.
The various cover treatments are below for your interest, top the Text cover which is my preference, middle the Penguin cover, and lower the John Murray cover:

It looks to me as if the John Murray cover may have been designed by the same person who designed their Mister Pip cover. They have a slightly similar  appearance to me although I haven't actually seen a copy of the John Murray edition of Hand Me Down World, I only have the above image to go on. I have added the John Murray Mister Pip cover so you too can compare them.

For more about Jones link to the excellent NZ Book Council website.

No comments: