Wow! I thought that This is how was a riveting read; Hearts and minds by Amanda Craig was even more gripping and packs more of a punch than anything I've read in 2010 so far. I couldn't describe it as a favourite read, because it's not comforting or feel-good, but it is absolutely tremendous, weaving an intriguing plot around the central theme of Britain's immigrant workers.
There is a large cast of characters. We meet Polly, a human rights lawyer, a white divorced mother of two, who is hugely reliant on Iryna her illegal immigrant au pair, who suddenly mysteriously disappears. We meet Anna, who has come from Lithuania in an attempt to start a new life for herself in England, but finds herself the victim of a prostitute trafficking ring and sold into a brothel. We meet Job, the taxi driver, a teacher in Zimbawbwe, but reduced to driving Londoners around to make a living, and so little thought of by his employers that they don't even use his name, just a number. Katie, an American, came to London to marry an American, but finding out that he was unfaithful just before their wedding, is forced to go it alone - she may be better off than Anna or Job, with her job on a magazine, but she can only afford to rent a flat in the same building as Anna's brothel and finds herself socially isolated and without friends.
The book is also social commentary on the first decade of the twenty-first century; Craig deals with the subjects of failing schools, a not always competent police force, terrorism, and the NHS, giving a fantastic insight into today's London and Great Britain.
I've seen this book compared to Dickens in other reviews, and I think that that is quite a good analogy given the masterful combination of characters, plot and social commentary. But it also fits into the grain of recent books about London life or Great Britain in the noughties- I'm thinking about William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, Blake Morrison's South of the river and Ian McEwan's Saturday or even Phillip Hensher's Northern Clemency (although that is obviously Sheffield based!)
At the end, Amanda Craig says that some of the characters in this book appear in her other novels; I did read her Love in idleness last year, but it didn't stay with me like this book has done, but I'm now intrigued to read some more of her books, particularly A private place, and A vicious circle. Is anyone else familiar with her? She has a website, and writes here about her experiences which led to writing Hearts and Minds.
Can I also just say that I think that the cover art on this is absolutely fantastic? I love the way that symbols are superimposed over the coloured lettering.
I wasn't intending to stick my neck out and say whether I thought that an Orange longlisted book would make it onto the shortlist, but I will make an exception for this one. Do go and get a copy!