Lloyd Jones: Hand Me Down World
Jones’ books tend towards the grim but with a ray of light shining through. In this one the grimness is definitely to the fore with the ray of light being very dim. It tells the story of an African woman. We do not what specific country she is from, though it appears to be a relatively small, non-English speaking one. Nor we know her name. Initially, she is given no name, then she goes by the name Ines but we later discover that this is not her name. Her story is told in two parts. In the first part, her story is told by the various people she meets in her travels, most of whom are relatively casual encounters. Only in the second part, do we get her side of the story which, in some cases, is somewhat different and, of course, gives us an alternative perspective.
At the start she is working in a hotel. She works for the Four Seasons chain and is eventually moved to Tunisia, where her ability and diligence see her promoted to supervisor. It is while working there that she meets Jermayne. Jermayne is a black German, who is there on holiday. He teaches her to swim and they soon start an affair. He then goes home but, to her surprise, comes back and the affair continues. Eventually, she gets pregnant but, even at this point, Jermayne does not desert her, making arrangements for the birth and then staying with her afterwards. However, at this point, he has her sign a document, takes the baby and disappears. We learn from her room-mate (who has been telling the story up to now) that Jermayne has been seen with another woman. It is soon clear that Jermayne has used her to get a surrogate baby and that he now has the baby and gone back to Berlin with him, together with the other woman, presumably his wife. Ines – I will use that name though it is not hers – is devastated but more for the loss of the baby than for the loss of Jermayne. She saves up her money and then sets out for Berlin.
Her journey to Berlin is not easy. She manages to get into Italy illegally, on a boat that seems to specialise in shipping Africans across the Mediterranean. She is in the sea for some time but finally comes ashore. She then sets out for Berlin, without knowing the language or, indeed, where exactly Berlin is. Many people help her. For example, she gets a ride from a lorry driver. In his version of the story, he gave her a lift and she, without his asking, gave him a blow job. (Her story, which we only learn such later, is quite different.) Others are much more helpful. The old lady who collects snail shells, the old man who is tired of his wife and Paolo the footballer do seem to help her and, finally, she makes her way to Berlin, though not after various brushes with the law and various difficulties.
In Berlin she meets a young man who calls himself Millennium Three, though she only knows him as Bernard. He is a professional poet, i.e. he declaims poetry in the Alexanderplatz and collects money from the listeners. He is very good to her and looks after her. With the help of the Internet, she is soon able to track down Jermayne and her son, though things do not really work out for her. Much of her time in Berlin, she spends looking after Ralf, who is blind and lives alone, having separated from his wife, Hannah. Ralf’s father, Otto, had been a photographer for the SS, filming their massacre of the Jews and other victims. They even find a photo he has taken of what seems to be Babi Yar. They do have sex, despite the huge age difference, something we also only find out later. As the work is too much for Ines, he takes on another young man, Defoe, to help him. Defoe is a New Zealander, who specialises in Antarctic fish but who is travelling round the world and wants to spend some time in Berlin. He becomes fond of Ralf and also of Ines.
But, as I said, things go wrong. Ines more or less keeps her spirits up but this is a grim book and her fate is not a pleasant one. In the afterword, Jones said that he got a grant to spend a couple of years in Berlin and wrote this novel as a result. Frankly, I think he would have been better off staying in New Zealand and writing another of his fine New Zealand novels.
First published 2010 by Text Publishing