|Courtesy Text Publishing|
This is a multiple point of view novel chronicling the story of a young African woman who leaves Africa, by boat as an illegal immigrant, to find her son (who had been illegally taken from her when he was a baby) in Berlin. The first chapters of the book are presented as witness accounts by those who saw or helped her on her way. The rest of the book is told in larger chunks with, near the end, Ines (as we come to know her, though this is not her "real" name) telling us her (version of) her story. All these stories, except the Inspector's near the beginning, are told first person.
What Ines does to achieve her end is not - shall we say - always ethical. For her, the ends justifies the means in her desperation to make contact with her child. There's a death, and there's quite a bit of thieving and lying. For some Minervans this made her an unappealing character with whom they could not relate. For all of us, though, it certainly challenged us to think about what we might do - how far we might go - in similar circumstances. Another criticism of the novel was that it got a little bogged down in the central Berlin section ... did we need the full Defoe section some thought?
We discussed at some length the meaning of the title. Some ideas (including from reviews/interviews) included that:
- the world, our world, is a rather arbitrary one
- the son was, in a sense, "handed down"
- people inhabit different worlds
- Ines wore, symbolically, a hand-me-down coat, rather reflecting her status in the world as a "used" person because, for all her faults, she sure was "used"
- versions - of things, people - are a theme of the novel (just as, really, the world has different "versions" depending on who we are and where we live)
...we abhorred the state-inspired delineations and definitions of difference. Borders. Citizenship. Rich. Poor. Entitlement.Another witness, the Film Researcher, talks of "other":
Until then she was, black, African, other. But now I saw a young woman who looked about the same age as my sister Alison. I could have been looking at Ali, apart from the obvious differences. Now I knew what I must do.How to meet and react to "Other" is a powerful challenge for us all ... and Jones, in this novel, tackles it head on ... it's a powerful tale.
And there I'll leave it. Our discussion was a month ago so I can't remember the finer detail. Minervans, if I've misrepresented us, here's your chance. Comment away!