This is Amanda Craig‘s 6th novel, looking at the lives and stories of a group of Londoners. The characters, some of whom have appeared in Ms Craig’s novels before (Hearts and Minds is portrayed as a sequel to two previous novels), are somewhat stock-in-trade (the idealistic teacher in a run-down state comprehensive; the kind-hearted guy escaping Zimbabwe and driving taxis for a living; the controversial, flamboyant media figure); all going about their daily lives with little cognisance of each other or how their lives are connected. Indeed, the overall impression is of a bunch of lonely, isolated, transient individuals who know things didn’t ought to be this way in a global city but who seem powerless to change things, such is the oppressive dominance of the prevailing attitude of the city in which they find themselves.
The novel scores well in its portrayal of life in London for Londoners and the author contributes the occasional welcome insight uniquely contributed by an outsider (Ms. Craig is South African), but it doesn’t really engage. The chapters are episodic and held within a rigid structure, both in terms of a uniform chapter length and several examples of cliff-hanger chapter endings which are, tiresomely, immediately dissolved by the focus of the next chapter being another character. It doesn’t help that the author is sometimes guilty of the most bone-juddering prose, a writing fault which ought to have been ironed out by now, as well as some extraordinarily awkward dialogue, but the biggest fault is that the characters remain in their rather two-dimensional lives: puppets living at the whim of the author rather than real characters in charge of their lives. The aim may well have been to put London and its controlling impact centre stage, to highlight the disconnected, uncaring and unobservant way in which modern life is lived in a big, impersonal city dependent on an under-class. Nevertheless, disengagement by the reader from the characters tends to undermine, rather than support, such an aim and, despite the good intentions of the author and the research she did into the story, she lost me way before the end.
It’s a shame, because the book comes highly recommended by authors I know and respect (as well as in some very over-the-top reviews), and – like the last book I read – made it to the Orange Prize for Fiction 2010 longlist (though Rosie Alison – whose novel I did enjoy – made it to the shortlist). Sorry, but this one got neither my heart nor my mind.