Because I can, I’m naming Lloyd Jones’ Hand Me Down World as my favourite manuscript of the year. (How’s that for an uncommon list-making category?) I think it’s extraordinary. Now that it’s published, the Guardian has tagged along: ‘This is, to make a bold claim, an extraordinary novel.’
So extraordinary, the classic Canadian rockers The Guess Who have made it into a song:
Anybody here see the noise, see the fear/And commotion/I think we missed it…
Don’t give me no hand me down shoes
Don’t give me no hand me down world
Got one already
The Guess Who were prophetic, recording their hit in 1970, a remarkable forty years before the publishing of its inspiration.
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At the start (start! Fugit!) of this year I read Hand Me Down World like every other manuscript — with no prior knowledge, excepting what I knew of the author’s work.
I’ve now designed six of Jones’ books, including the wonderful Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning, Booker-runner-up, Mister Pip, and also — don’t say it! going to say it — one of my all-time contemporary favourites, The Book of Fame, about a subject obscure to me and for which I care nothing: an All Blacks rugby world tour at the turn of the 20th century. Near enough to a prose poem in the first-person plural, sustained at novel-length. Kind of astounding. It just keeps sidling into my fickle top ten without being asked. Go here to read the back cover blurb which I, yes, the book designer, wrote, that’s how much it got to me.
Hand Me Down World, with its odd, unsettling title tells an odd, literally unsettling tale — from Tunisia across the Mediterranean Sea and overland to Berlin. No need to recap: see the Guardian; the NZ Herald, “enthralled”; Australian Book Reviewpdf, “immense heart”; the Australian, “its emotional momentum sweeps us up”; the Telegraph, “haunting”; the Independent, “disturbing beauty”; the Daily Express, “packs a punch.” Indeed. I was knocked out. Several reviews mention the originality of the structure — and it may be so, but what strikes me is the aptness of the multi-voiced approach, severally-articulated like a long tram — exactly what the book needs. Also noted is the superb restraint of the writing; refusing the powerful temptation to overcolour, to crank up the emotive language — again, that seems a pitch-perfect decision for this story and its enigmatic protagonist.
But it’s best not to know too much before you see or read something. (Motto: Read reviews defensively.) As Lloyd Jones says, ‘I never tell readers what they will find. A novel should offer the same reward as a treasure chest. You plunge in without knowing in advance what you will take out of it.’ Segue to the reader reviews on the UK Hand Me Down World site: the publisher released 100 copies of the book to be passed on — hand me down books — and some of the readers have posted their responses. Anne from Gainsborough: ‘Heart-breaking in parts, often beautiful and quite inspiring…’; Vicki from Barnet: ‘In a reading career spanning 40+ years, I have failed to finish a tiny handful of books. Sadly, this is one of those…’; Sarah from Weymouth: ‘I’ve literally just finished this book and I’m a bit overawed…’ and so on.
The back cover, I think, conveys an alluring minimum. While I don’t speak to authors during the (multi-layered) cover design process, I’d heard Lloyd was a bit concerned that the back treatment might give away too much. But compared to the reviews, it’s the very model of discretion:
Famous Blue Raincoat
In an useful interview at Bookseller+Publisher Jones says: ‘Had I not been in Berlin I probably wouldn’t have written this particular novel … I don’t think that the style of the novel is influenced by place as much as a desire to find a form that would release the story.’
Which sounds like the instinct that invents the book cover, ‘a desire to find a form that would release the story.’
And he says: ‘I don’t think [Hand Me Down World] had any one starting point or eureka moment. I had been reading about the African boat people, thinking about lung fish and the Antarctic; I was in Berlin … As often happens with fiction, these disparate things eventually found one another … The character of Ines holds the book together. I have no idea where she sprung from. But I’m glad she did — and I do remember writing by a desk lamp in the gloom of a Berlin November about a woman swimming ashore in Europe and feeling — Yes, this is interesting. This is vital.’
But Jones provided me with an eureka moment. Coming upon the passage below, I saw the cover all at once: an African woman in a blue coat, feeling the chill of Europe. (Francis Bacon once described how he used to see the pictures he would paint as if they were projected on imaginary screens before him. I painted “Ines” on plywood, biggish for cover art, 70 x 50cm. So, after The Guess Who, we find yet another musical Canadian inspired by this book — Leonard Cohen and his Famous Blue Raincoat.)
From page 50 — there’s this bunch of hunters in Italy:
We send the dogs ahead and fan out. Very soon there is a commotion. The dogs have banded together. So it is not a partridge. Perhaps it is a rabbit. Leo has a wonderful recipe for rabbit but it requires that someone, Paolo, climb up to the ridge and gather wild herbs. Or else it is a phantom. Dogs are the nerviest of creatures. We are threading our way through the brush when we hear a woman’s voice. Paolo runs ahead. We can hear a woman shouting at the dogs. The dogs are barking. Paolo is being quite rough with them, cursing them, kicking them away.
As we come through the brush there is the black woman. She is wearing a blue coat. That’s the first thing that strikes me. How odd to be wearing a coat like that up in the hills. No. That is the second surprise. The first surprise is undoubtedly the woman. An African woman. Once, many years ago, we thought we had stumbled on bear shit. We stood around it, photographed it. Another time we saw two parakeets. Probably domestic—escaped. We have seen the odd soul—hikers—on the tracks through the hills leading down into the first valley of Switzerland. But never a black woman. Never an African. She has her arms up in surrender. A plastic bag hangs from her hand.
Tonight I’m seeing the author speak at the Wheeler Centre, and if I get a good drawing and quotes I’ll add them here. Clock this space.
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Ramona: Did you master German?
Lloyd : No, I’m still coming to grips with English.
So there we all were at the Wheeler — a very impressive full house, around 200 folk. The format was a conversation/interview between the Book Show’s Ramona Koval and author Lloyd Jones. It transpired that they have known each other for a longish time, which seemed to enable Koval to ask certain questions that visibly unsettled Jones (he gently squirmed in his seat) who is evidently a modest fellow and disarmingly straightforward, if on the shy side. With that occasionally charming Kiwi accent, rather like the aural version of a gap in the front teeth.
Bits and pieces from Lloyd Jones:
On young and old writers, writing: Time expands. If you need to write, you’ll write.
On travel: It’s a way of rearranging the mental furniture, it’s a bit of a jolt.
On readers: I invite readers to read whatever they want into the story.
On writing: I never ever think of plot … when I’m writing, I’m listening.
It’s the voice that interests me — and the story just pours out. (But) I’m aware the story has form — it’s like net-making, making connections …
I think writers are very good at collecting landscapes.
The key is finding a persuasive voice to unlock all this.
Now when I write, I almost keep my eyes closed.
I think of myself as a reader — I write what I want to read.
Illustrating with an anecdote: An author was asked, Is there a secret to creative writing?
He answered: Yes.
On Hand Me Down World: When I found the title I found the whole modus operandi.
On Ines, the central character of HMDW: I thought perhaps I can get away with this multiplicity of voices — you can get a sense of her without her being present. I had no idea she was going to have a voice. I must say it put a smile on my face when she (Ines) told me (… describes a scene in the story) — for she can subvert everything you have read up to that point.
On the narrative in HMDW: The story is moving sideways as it’s moving forwards as well.
On narrative: The way we can make sense of reality is to turn it into a story. I think we all do that.
Audience member on the character of Ines: You really do become a woman. Jones: A person is the creation of language. If I get the language I get the person.
On creating characters: I don’t ever describe the character — it doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in what they are thinking.
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(The interview will be broadcast Monday 22nd Nov, morning and evening, on podcast, or eventually at the Wheeler’s video page.)
W. H. Chong is a book designer and artist. He is Design Director at Text Publishing, and a founding member of ABDA (Australian Book Designers Association) where he currently serves as Secretary. His work can be seen at whchong.com.