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Weaving web of intrigue and hope

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: May 02, 2009

Weaving web of intrigue and hope

Amanda Craig celebrates the reincarnation of the storyteller

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IF THE story is back in fashion, Amanda Craig for one, is in vogue. Her latest novel Hearts and Minds is set in modern day London, with an intricate plot and web of characters to rival the novels of Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope.

This gripping, at times harrowing, but ultimately hopeful story follows the fortunes of five characters, four of them immigrants, struggling to stay afloat in the city.

There is Job, working illegally as a minicab driver after fleeing persecution in Zimbabwe; South African emigrant Ian, teaching in one of London's most deprived schools; immigration lawyer and struggling single mother Polly; Katie, fleeing an unhappy love life in New York for the surreal upper class environs of society magazine The Rambler and, most harrowingly, Anna, a 15-year-old girl lured from the Ukraine, only to find herself forced into prostitution.

The novel opens with the disappearance of Polly's Russian au pair Iryna, one of the city's illegal immigrants, whose body will be found in a pond on Hampstead Heath. She has left a clue for Polly which will eventually lead to her killer.

This is not a detective story though. With elements of both farce and biting social commentary, it has a simple moral at its heart; compassion to each other is what makes life in any circumstances worth living.

"It is a huge mixture of dark and light, hopefulness and hopelessness," says Amanda, who will be speaking at the Daphne du Maurier Festival of Arts and Literature in Fowey this month.

"I think that is what fascinated me most, trying to convey that London was an extraordinary place that can completely turn your life around and renew you but the penalty for failing is very, very harsh."

The novel, Amanda's sixth, grew out of a period when she fell seriously ill, and began to reflect on just how much she relied on people from other countries; her surgeon, her au pair from Eastern Europe, the mini-cab drivers who took her to hospital appointments. This sense of a precarious place where desperate people struggle for a toehold struck her as every bit as compelling to explore as the debtors' prisons and slums of Dickens' London.

The character of Anna, lured from the Ukraine with a promise of a better life only to find herself incarcerated in a brothel, is based on conversations with real prostitutes, who Amanda paid to share their story.

"They were very happy to get out of the cold, sit in a café and tell me about their lives," says Amanda.

Amanda's next novel is something completely different. It is set in Devon, a county she has fallen in love with since she and her husband bought a house near Broadwoodwidger in West Devon; "a complete wreck" which they are doing up.

Someone who is a minor character in one of Amanda's novels will often be upgraded in another. So Quentin, the odious editor of The Rambler magazine, will pop up again in her next novel, when he and his wife move down to create havoc in the country.

"What I love is mixing this black, almost gothic stuff with comedy," she says.

Amanda will talk about Daphne du Maurier's work as well as her own at the festival, reflecting on Daphne's gift for telling a rip-roaring yarn.

"I absolutely loved her books as a teenager and I think she is a fascinating writer in that she carries on from Charlotte Brönte's interest in people living in remote, cut-off places and having these passions," she says.

"What interests me most is that she is such a great storyteller and that is what I identify with in her."

Stories with proper endings and strong plots, she notes, have been out of fashion for some time.

"It has been very frustrating if you are a storyteller because you always get marked down for having any kind of proper ending, but that is the sort of book that a lot of people want to read, including intelligent ones."

Amanda Craig will be talking about her work at 4pm on Friday, May 15 in the Du Maurier Theatre at the Daphne du Maurier Festival of Arts and Literature, Fowey. For tickets call 01726 879500.

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