Amanda Craig’s not-so-novel take on immigration
From a self-righteous human rights lawyer to a trafficking victim, the characters in Hearts and Minds are like cut-out clichés from the immigration debate.
For a modern British novel about immigration, Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds is actually quite entertaining. Sure, it has the usual preachy nonsense about the alienation inherent in modern city life, but it also has guns and suicide bombers. It is undoubtedly a page turner. But it also falls into an old trap: painting immigrants as helpless in the face of the alienating forces of the city, which envelop their ambition and spit them out as hapless victims. While it purports to be a book about human co-dependence, Hearts and Minds ends up as a testament to inherent human vulnerability.
The story revolves around a group of characters, all but one of whom are immigrants. Their apparently disparate lives are drawn together by a series of coincidences centring on the murder of a young Polish cleaner. The only non-immigrant is Polly, a human-rights lawyer working predominantly on immigration cases. Polly is truly irritating. She seems like the kind of woman who would audibly tut at you for not bringing your own woven bags to Waitrose. Craig presents her as crushed by her middle-class moral dilemmas. She defends her clients, she says, with ‘tigerish protectiveness’, but then agonises over paying her Polish cleaner less than she would a Brit. She bemoans her children – and with a mum like Polly, I feel for her poor, poor kids – for taking their Western privileges for granted while recognising that she herself could do ‘so much more’. Craig attempts to place Polly at the moral centre of the book, but Polly is in fact never meaningfully moral, just guilty and professional.
The immigrant characters in the book veer from original and textured right through to clichés. There is Ian, a South African teacher who falls in love with his father’s assistant. At the start of the book he gets annoyed when people’s show sympathy for him because he works in a failing school. In an admirable expression of adult authority, he tells them: ‘They’re just kids you know?’ He dreams of gaining his teaching qualification so he can teach across the world. He is desperate to connect to his students but is stifled by having to teach learning exercises rather than literature. It was disappointing to find that he ends up buying into the same middle-class angst displayed by Polly when, after his friend is randomly stabbed by a group of his pupils, he agonises that it may have been his fault ‘for not speaking Bengali’.
Then there’s the lynchpin of any modern novel about immigration: the teenage sex-slave. The portrayal of a 15-year-old Polish girl, sold straight into the sex trade, reads more like an advert for Childline than a grown-up treatment of a complex issue.
Yet, through a Zimbabwean intellectual-cum-taxi driver called Job, Craig nicely picks up on the kinds of contradictions which immigrants must experience. Job marvels at the ‘abundance of everything’ in his new life. He walks ‘amazed round every museum he can find’, yet his ‘heart is left empty’ because he’s far from those he has left behind. While these kinds of feelings are well-trodden literary ground, they allow for an interesting exploration of the conflict between alienation and ambition that most first-generation immigrants must experience.
Even though the human experience of immigration is fertile ground for fiction, Craig can’t resist wading headlong into caricatured politics. As a result, her novel too often reads like journalism. In a workplace exchange between the staff of a contrarian political journal, one side of posh journalists argue that we should ‘re-impose proper border controls and ID cards’ because ‘obviously too many immigrants makes it bad for those of us who got here first’, while the other side of posh journalists scoffs that open borders is ‘just a question of morality. There is no “us and them”. There’s just people.’
It is hard to tell how much of the author is present in the arguments played out by her characters. Being generous, the incessant and polarised debates could be interpreted as a satire of the modern discussion of immigration, or it could be seen as an accurate portrayal of how both sides of the debate often employ empty sentiment and misinformation. But given that Craig is plainly keen to fight the corner of the unheard immigrant, it is difficult to resist the idea that she is exercising her own politics through her characters. Of course, this is not a problem in itself, but in the novel the whole discussion becomes self-righteous and sneering. It feels as though Craig herself is posing her own liberal ‘us’, those enlightened enough to believe that freedom of movement is a good thing, and the illiberal ‘them’, who harbour irrational fears about the impact of immigration on British life.
But the more fundamental problem is that this is a book about immigration which pays no credence to the power of human agency. At the start, the characters appear as evidence that human beings can be driven by an insatiable drive to shape their own destiny. But that is exactly why the novel’s central narrative – about people effectively being pushed together and pulled apart almost exclusively by the forces of fate and circumstance – just doesn’t ring true. For all its moral grandstanding about the benefits of multiculturalism, the novel misses an opportunity to address the fundamental human drive inherent in the act of immigration: to rule over accidents of circumstance, rather than be defined by them.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.