HAND ME DOWN WORLD, by Lloyd Jones. Bloomsbury, 313 pp., $25.
Invisibility is a central theme of "Hand Me Down World," the latest novel by the New Zealand-born writer Lloyd Jones (best known for his 2006 novel, "Mister Pip"). In a sense, invisibility offers a kind of power, the ability to move through the world without being noticed. It represents the virtue of freedom. Yet anonymity also serves as a marker for helplessness -- not being listened to, not being seen, a life pushed to the margins.
Indeed, the young African woman at the center of this story is not even named until several chapters into the novel, and this name may or may not be false. Ines is a hotel maid, someone for whom invisibility is a requirement: "To be good staff you had to be like the palms and the sea, pleasing to the eye," explains a co-worker. "We must not take up space but be there whenever a guest needed us."
The mundane and seemingly insignificant nature of her job masks the messy drama of her real life. She is seduced by Jermayne, a handsome -- and married -- German guest at the Tunisian luxury resort where she works. (It's impossible not to think of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, in which the powerful Frenchman -- a former director of the International Monetary Fund -- admitted to a liaison with a New York hotel maid, but was cleared in court of sexual assault charges.)
In Jones' novel, Ines becomes pregnant and believes she will be given a new life, a husband, a sense of security. Instead, she's tricked into signing adoption papers and relinquishing all rights to her newborn son.
Rather than accept her fate, Ines makes her way (illegally) to Berlin, determined to take back the child. ("Her face has an earned dignity," Jones writes.) Her journey is described in first-person "testimonies" from strangers she encounters along the way, including a truck driver who mistakes her for a prostitute, and a chess player. This chorus of voices -- at times offering conflicting views of Ines and her story -- slowly pieces together a portrait of an enigmatic, desperate woman.
Unreliable narrators abound. When the African woman herself finally speaks, retelling the story from her own perspective, it's tricky to figure out whose testimony was truthful, and to what extent, and how honest the woman has been throughout. One fact is clear: Her devotion to the son who was stolen from her knows no bounds. "I wonder how much time will pass before I see him again," she says. "I worry about that lost time and how I will make it up to him. I worry about the lies his father will tell."
With its multiple perspectives, each one building on the last (however falsely), "Hand Me Down World" slowly reveals itself, like a jigsaw puzzle.
This is the story of a mother's determined courage, yet Jones avoids sentimentality. It is also about those who have power and those who do not -- and this mother, with all her dignity and savviness, is an unlikely candidate for redemption. Still, she possesses a fierce kind of hope that no one can take from her.