By Amanda Craig
Little Brown, £17.99
From first to last page, from basement brothel to glitzy garden party, Amanda Craig’s new novel, set in, and all about, contemporary London, had me utterly in thrall. Hearts and Minds is a marvellously multi-faceted book, a 21st-century tale of immigrants drawn to the city that promises pavements of gold, but delivers dust, ashes and even terror to the innocent and unwary.
From seamy, rented rooms and sink schools where the affluent majority rarely glimpses them (and still more rarely cares), Craig brings into focus a handful of characters beleaguered by everyday life in the big smoke.
So convincingly does she mirror their opposing dreams and travails to survive that one feels oneself almost sharing their fate.
There is Job, the illegal minicab driver who moonlights at a car-wash for £2 an hour in order to send money back home to Zimbabwe.
The under-age Ukrainian Anna is duped into enslavement and prostitution.
Supply teacher Ian, from South Africa, is shocked by the soullessness of staff and pupils alike, and finds the British — supposed standard-bearers of liberty — oddly racist.
Then there is Katie. Fleeing from a broken engagement (she found her Wasp banker fiancé in bed with another woman just a week before the wedding), she feels unlovable and undervalued in her dogsbody job at the pretentiously political Rambler magazine.
Some would dismiss these as unprepossessing lives, but Craig breathes into them more saving grace than most would in their disheartened, suspicious host country.
Job, generous to the point of sacrifice, lives up to his biblical book name. Anna and Katie volunteer small acts of unexpected kindness. Ian will not be discouraged in pursuit of love and classroom ideals.
One way or another — by accident, invitation or downright danger — the paths of these fictional visitors to Britain cross and intertwine through Polly Noble, Jewish mother, immigration lawyer and divorcee from Camden Town borders.
Polly has her own middle-class worries, including the well-being of her privately educated children; her job and home security; a long-distance love affair; and the sudden disappearance of that other essential middle-class appurtenance, her excellent au pair.
But Polly — herself of refugee heritage — “has taken in compassion and fear with her mother’s milk”.
Dedicating long hours to pro bono clients, she is a very believable Portia de nos jours, through whose innate sense of tikkun olam the London of Hearts and Minds grows a little less harsh and grey.
As contemporary chronicles of the capital go, Craig’s new novel is up there, at least, with Ian McEwan’s Saturday.
Some six years in the writing, Hearts and Minds must be Amanda Craig’s chef d’oeuvre — a serious yet sparkling treat.