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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Book Reviews


The Unnumbered by Sam North. Scribner, London, 2005, 358 pages, £7.99.

Courtesy of Scribner
If limbo exists on earth, it is surely inhabited by the displaced, the misplaced: people who have migrated from their homes to elsewhere only to find themselves without civil status anywhere; people who have gone “missing” at the hands of others or walked—fallen—out of their own lives; people who suffer from fractured minds, dire poverty, existential misery’s relentlessly degrading grasp. Everyone in this limbo is, in one way or another, a casualty of circumstance, or history; some, less ambiguously, are among the criminally victimized; others, having suffered crime, are criminals in turn. Everyone’s time in limbo is variable, though mostly endless. Some dream the while of heaven, which at times takes the shape of the past, from whence they came, or as frequently the future, which is denied them unless they somehow manage to break free from the present’s paralytic grasp. Some do not dream at all: the ones too demoralized to do so, those exhausted by the uselessness of celestial reverie, and those who’ve learned—know in their bones—that the odds favor hell.

Among limbo’s denizens in Sam North’s harrowing novel, The Unnumbered, are the illegal aliens, resident immigrants, and homeless who variously live in London’s forgotten corners, on its edges, below its surface. Nio Niopoulos, the novel’s 23-year-old protagonist, inhabits—and is eventually evicted from—an unlawful shack he erects in an ancient, long-disused cemetery; unemployed, he creates sculptures from bushes, trees, leaves, pieces of coal, anything that comes to hand on the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital. Mila, the 15-year-old with whom Nio falls in love, is the daughter of illegal immigrants from Romania who manages to buy false papers so she can work as a cashier in a department store, under a different name and as a 20-year-old. At the novel’s beginning, she and her extended family occupy three trailers located at the edge of a parking lot for warehouse retailers; constantly forced to move, the family at one point is parked in a wrecked-car lot between London’s A406 highway and an access road, and ends up in a dismal trailer park of sorts run by evangelists. Anjali, the young East Asian woman who personifies the immigrant success story (her loving, Urdu-speaking parents are modestly well-to-do, she is a university student), falls so far from grace when she hits rock bottom that she finds herself—and remains—among the homeless in London’s vast Tube underground.

Lives on hold, in Sam North’s world, are lives at stake. Anjali, paralyzed by the shame of a near-rape, disappears herself from home and university because she has failed both, in the first instance by having placed the personal ad that led to her victimization, in the second by not having recognized criminal sociopathology—her field of study—when confronted with it. Nio, the son of Greek immigrants whose only address in London has ever been the curbside cantinas in which they work and live, is on his own. He wants nothing but a decent, simple future—a job that would use his talents, wages enough to support a small apartment, a life with Mila. Mila also wants a future with Nio, but any future, for her, is complex, as her family is disintegrating. Her father’s spirit has been broken; an older brother is missing (perhaps still in Romania, perhaps not); and her youngest brother, Little Vlad, has become a panhandler and petty thief. No one among the extended family can work legally; and there is no turning back. There are only Mila’s paltry paychecks, and Mila’s fantasies: to be rich—maybe famous, but certainly rich—for only money will pave the way to a better life for all, let Mila search for her missing brother, and get Little Vlad off the streets. Her family’s desperate situation, and Mila’s naïveté, makes her the perfect quarry for Lucas Tooth.

Tooth—conman, thief, blackmailer, rapist—is a character of pure, predatory evil whose perfectly credible malevolence never trespasses the bounds of what is possible. He chooses his female victims carefully, then preys on them by pretending to be what they want, and need, him to be. In Mila’s case, he poses as the head of a management company for models, actresses, singers; when he wins her confidence, he leads her on. Smitten as much by the possibility of becoming a model (no, a singer, Mila later decides) as by Tooth himself, Mila’s relationship with Nio deteriorates until, ultimately terrified by Tooth, she realizes she has been duped. Nio—a character of extraordinary goodness, Lucas Tooth’s paired opposite—patiently bears Mila’s emotional inconstancy without ever fully understanding its cause. By the time Mila rids herself of her delusions and (so she thinks) Lucas Tooth, her and Nio’s lives begin to come together: Nio’s talent is recognized, of a sudden he becomes employed as a garden sculptor, Mila begins to make handbags (based on Anjali’s design, for, in a convoluted but frankly believable plot twist, Mila meets and befriends Anjali) and finds additional, part-time work at a clothing stall at Camden Market. Mila’s family can no longer object to the “fish and chips”—their term for a Brit, their way of referring to Nio—now that he’s making money; it’s unstated but understood that, given the situation, there might be hope that everyone will soon be better off. And that that small apartment Nio and Mila both desire is about to become reality.

This anticlimax (the only word I can think of to describe the brink-of-doom edge to which North, with great poise, brings The Unnumbered) embraces—for the sweetest, briefest moment—the saved and the damned. But the hold doesn’t last, can’t last: reality is too complex, and there is too much at work against any enchanted ending. Human malevolence, for one thing: Lucas Tooth does not go away, and Mila (as was Anjali before her) is stalked and finally sexually assaulted by him. Then there is anti-immigration sentiment, and racism: Mila’s family, considered by some to be gypsies and detested by all, remain illegal, unwanted, and further humiliated when they’re told by the evangelists to pretend to be Turks. Economic degradation plays its role, and leaves Mila’s destitute family at the bottom of the barrel, where they remain. But it is deeply rooted culture—otherness—that ultimately prevents both Anjali and Mila from returning to their homes, their lives, to those whom they love, after they are victimized. For they both suffer shame.

That there are people for whom the concept of shame still matters profoundly is hardly understood any more in the West (to the West’s own cost). It once was, along with the notion of honor—Lord Jim would never have made sense otherwise—but both seem to have gone out of fashion. That North has managed to create characters for whom such values are fundamental, despite the standards of the new world in which they find themselves, is a remarkable achievement. Nio, a man who knows right from wrong, believes in honor, in codes of conduct; it is no minor element in the novel that, despite his desire and Mila’s tempting persistence to the contrary, he insists upon waiting until Mila is sixteen (legally of age) before they make love. Anjali and Mila come from cultures in which shame is a curse, and neither can mitigate (never mind erase) the disgrace of their own victimization except by not “going public,” by not going to the police, by not telling anyone about Lucas Tooth. Instead, they become part of that world inhabited by the displaced anonymous, and are lost to limbo.

By Britain’s own, very recent accounting, there might be up to 570,000 illegal immigrants in the country. They come from all corners of the globe, but even those who come from what any of us might consider near the UK—Romania, say—can and do bring with them different values, a different way of being, which more often than not conflict with the values they confront as immigrants. In the face of an anti-immigration backlash scarcely confined to any one country in the West, illegal immigrants are hardly willing to draw attention to themselves and, so, remain mostly voiceless. Without being heard, without being able to tell anyone who they were, how they came to be wherever it is they are, who they’ve become, what they want to do, or what they wish, they don’t stand a chance of being understood. Sam North puts words in the mouths of those who cannot speak for themselves, shapes every finely honed character’s past and present, dreams and fears, and makes—no, insists that—the unnumbered speak with such authenticity that it’s difficult to know whether North is simply an extraordinary novelist or a phenomenal medium. Hear Mila, furious with Nio for thinking her too young, protest:

[…] “You know what?” she asked, “look, all the people here in London, how many walk from the Black Sea, or hike-hitched, losing from their family in Braşov, how many waited in the old school, three months we waited in that broken down old school, in the yard, how many go and made the journeys with no ticket, or no money? Our family split up two times! I had different shoes, you know, for months, not a pair, but different, and I wanted them, for dear life. Two hours in the middle of the road, next to the metal thing, too scared to move, two whole hours, like this, next to…and Mama carrying his [Mila’s father’s] spectacles, all that time, when there was only one glass, only one side was in, the other gone, empty. In the petrol service station area, when we are in this country, our whole family, with nowhere to go. No police escort because there are too many of us and it’s a Sunday. And every man…every one…especially the what is it, junior housing officer, here in Haringey, he offered me…well…to run away from the housing officer, with nowhere to go…And you know what, Vlad took a photo of me, he was asked to do it by this man in France, he was given a camera to take a picture, given it for free, and you know what happened to that picture, it went all around London, and back in France I get men who have seen the photograph, they send other men with money, and they offer to pay me everything to come here, hundreds of pounds they will pay me, but I have to say no because I know about the traps, the houses here in London where girls are prisoners. OK? Anyone in this whole country who did that, who’s that happened to them, any girl who’s twenty years old! Or fifty years old? How about, is all right?!”

“I only meant,” began Nio.

“Don’ mean, though. Just don’. I am old enough for anything.” (p. 56)

Sam North’s The Unnumbered speaks for, and to, every displaced, misplaced, person sitting there in limbo, waiting, as the song says, for the tide to turn. Whether it ever does or not, one can’t help but hope that some getaways will indeed be made, and lead to many, many more.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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