This novel has been on my radar since May 2009 when Dovegreyreader praised it so effusively. But sometimes these things take time to mature.  Finally an Orange prize longlisting and a forthcoming trip to London promoted it to the top of the pile.

And now I’m feeling ever so nervous about that trip because this is not the London of my student days spent meandering safely around the Inner Circle, the greenery of Regent’s Park and red-bricked academia of Bedford College – even at night time, on my own.  But perhaps then I was simply carefree and oblivious …

Well, no longer.  The London of  Hearts and Minds is a danger zone and you know it from the opening page in which the body of an unidentified woman is dumped on Hampstead Heath.  The mystery surrounding this is interwoven with the struggles of a complex cast of characters from all walks of life and nations and religious affiliations.  London is  a city of refuge for those seeking respite from poverty,  political torture, or even a broken heart.    But the promised freedom is only a chimera and harsh reality is never far away and for some, the ensuing exploitation is much harsher than for others.

Two years ago Rose Tremain won the Orange Prize for The Road Home,  her story of an economic migrant made good.  It was cozy in parts.  Hearts and Minds hasn’t got a cozy word in its pages.  It picks you up and gives you a good shaking.  This is an unflinching look at the world of illegal immigrants, multi-cultural urban education in a failing school and  the resentments that threaten to tear contemporary Britain apart.  It could be so worthy, yet the issues are woven seamlessly into a suspenseful plot with the author ever mindful of her chosen form –  a novel not a didactic treatise.  There is obviously so much authorly passion in these pages that she can be forgiven the odd slip into heavyhandedness …. and one slight plot implausibility.

Overall though this is a stunning read.  I haven’t been shaken and stirred so much by a novel since The Lizard Cage.  I can’t speak for the Orange-prize judges but  it’s odds-on to appear my top ten of 2010.