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Customer Review

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Painfully steroetyped/mouthpieced characters mar an okay plot, 31 May 2012
This review is from: Hearts And Minds (Hardcover)
In some ways it pains me to write this, because I do admire Amanda Craig for trying to write a 'state of the nation' novel; for trying to get under the skin of the hugely complex city (world?) that is London - and for evidently going to great lengths in terms of research, plotting etc.

But I think perhaps it is exactly her striving to write a novel which totally encapsulates modern London that makes this book suffer. And suffer quite hard, actually. I struggled to finish it, which rarely happens.

Hearts and Minds' main problem is that in trying to reflect 'London', rather than engaging in good old-fashioned characterisation, Craig presents a cast of characters who are essentially ventriloquist dummies for a smorgasbord of various (and usually over-simplified) political and/or societal positions. So instead of complex interior thought patterns which relate to a unique and conflicted life, most of the character's on-page time is taken up with musings on various 'issues of the day' (immigration, mainly), which serve to render them as little more than mouthpieces for each demographic/political section of a painfully over-drawn 'modern London'. So (to give just a few examples), we get the immigrants coming out with things like the following:

"We don't get good jobs, man. That's for white people."

"Without people like us, you would drown in dust. Do you think toilet paper is renewed by magic, and light bulbs never fail?"

"This is what the white man has given them, he thought, this great longing, this curiosity and thirst to learn more; but here, in the white man's own country, children have lost it."

"...he has even heard them complain to each other about how foreign shopkeepers 'put nothing back into the community.'

And we get the Brits thinking things like this:

"...'all that's holding this whole place up is read tape.' 'Just like Heathrow airport,' he tells her."

"The year has already begun, and already teenagers are dying from stab wounds."

"...this country, where white people never seem to have black friends and yet talk of multiculturalism, and where black people just don't seem to try."

And the overtly xenophobic Brits saying things like this:

"In a couple more years, the police will be patrolling our shores with gunboats trying to keep Johnny Foreigner from flooding in..."

Additionally, not only do people think or say these things almost constantly, but at far too regular intervals, those present in any given scene will fall into a clichéd and lazily polarised debate (again, usually about immigration), in a way that rarely actually happens in real life. Trust me, I've lived in London: Cab drivers don't happily talk about the horrors of African civil war, and Eastern European workers don't make constant veiled references to lazy Brits.

Maybe I'm just jaded, or under-exposed, but all this came off as totally tiresome for me; a presentation of the sort of opinions and musings which you can go to newspaper columns for, but which novelists should be looking beyond. It's my humble belief that most people have more complex feelings about most of the issues Craig touches on, and tend to come at them at from more nuanced, confused, experiential - and less straightforward - angles.

But hey, I don't mean to dump on it too much. It's well-plotted, and well-researched. I just found it to be painfully 'topical' and 'current' in a way that didn't actually offer anything like insight. On top of this, you could also feel that Craig was out of her comfort zone writing about so many foreigners; they would literally sag under the weight of their over-detailed backstories, in a way that didn't expose anything to do with their character, but simply Craig's desperation not to come off as underinformed - which would (one assumes) be the worst thing for her, as she is clearly (too clearly, actually, in a way that intrudes on the narrative and sees her judging her characters) on the liberal, tolerant side of things. So the Australian guy *has* to refer to girls as 'Sheilas', and the South African guy *has* to constantly reflect on the legacy of apartheid.

Then again, no accounting for taste, as they say. Others seem to have enjoyed it.
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