I have become emphatic about the power of story. Several books I’ve read and loved recently have captured my imagination around this idea: David Mitchell’s use of language and language barriers in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Janet Frame’s insistence that it is words that create the physical world in Patrick Evans’ brilliant Gifted.
Hand Me Down World strengthened my conviction that stories are crucial to human existence. Similar to these other authors, Lloyd Jones is embodying a character that he has to get right. This is not historical fiction or the imagined story of well-known literary figures, but Jones has much to prove to that suspicious post-Mr Pip audience about his ability to be the voice of someone so far removed from his self.
And prove himself he does. Ines is not necessarily a loveable protagonist on a noble journey, and it could be argued that her methods are far from forgivable at times, but I sympathised with her motive and believed wholly in her naïve determination to see her son.
Her story is first told second-hand as the people she has encountered describe her in testimonials. The next part of the book is from Ines’ point of view as she looks back over what the others have said. She is frank about her own short-comings and the details others have skipped over, either through their own embarrassment or protection of her. It’s an interesting exercise for the reader and I found myself flicking back to previous accounts and thinking deeper about the idea of ‘truth’; how stories change when we say them aloud – how we choose, omit, brush over details that others may need to hear.
Language itself is also a theme and as borders are crossed, language shifts and each character’s ability to be understood is tested. Ines is criticised for her “hotel English” but in fact the use of dialogue is sparse and never more than is necessary.
This is very clever story-telling. Jones lets us piece things together and slips in huge events in non-assuming ways that meant I was always rereading and cross-referencing the tale. But I was also moved by the ending, which again sent me straight back to the beginning.
The joy of this kind of writing is exactly what must cause headaches for the author in the process: authentic voices that are believable enough that we question their integrity when they get things wrong, not the author’s ability to stay consistent. Characters who create worlds and new truths through the telling of stories.