A young woman’s journey from Africa to Berlin to locate her kidnapped son, as told by a chorus of voices.
The latest novel by Man Booker Prize–shortlisted New Zealand author Jones (Biografi, 1993, etc.) centers on Ines, who’s working as a hotel maid in Tunis when she falls for a German man. The two have a son, but the father quickly abducts the child and heads home to Berlin, prompting Ines to risk her life traveling from Tunisia to Sicily and through Europe to locate the boy and his father. The first portion of the novel is told by the people Ines met along the way, among them an Italian truck driver who demands sexual favors in return for ferrying her; an alpine hunter who helps her into Austria; an elderly blind man who hires her as a guide in Berlin; and, most prominently, an aquatic scientist with whom she cultivates the closest relationship. In time it becomes clear that the boy’s father is extorting Ines, making her pay for access to the child. But only later, when the narrative shifts to Ines’ own voice, does it becomes heartbreakingly clear how much Ines sacrificed beyond money for that access, and how willfully oblivious others have been to her emotions. Jones’ strategy of withholding Ines’ perspective for more than half the book is a little ungainly, and the characters' voices aren’t markedly distinct from each other—each speaks of Ines in a somber, sometimes pitying tone, and Ines’ voice is glum too. But the scenes between Ines and her son are affecting, showing connections that transcend their language barrier. Some color appears in the closing chapters, as she reveals the depth of her struggle, and the possibility of a hard-won happy ending appears.
A disarming vision of one woman’s life in the underclass, though it takes time to come into focus.