* Prices may differ from that shown
I will begin by saying that 'The Other Hand' is most probably a book I would never have bought or chosen to read myself, due to the lack of information on the cover as to what the story is actually about. Indeed all you are given are a few small lines informing the would-be reader that this is a truly special story of two women whose lives collide one fateful day and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Then two years later they meet again and basically that is it, other than the fact the blurb boasts that once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. And you are asked not to tell them what happens either because the magic is in how the book unfolds.
Those few lines, coupled with recommendations from the media describing the book as "A feat of literary engineering," " A powerful piece of art," and "Searingly eloquent" to list but a few, is all you have to go on. Oh and if you are not convinced by now that this book is going to be one of the most wonderful things you have ever read, there is also a letter from the editor just inside the cover telling you how amazing it is.
It was my daughter who gave me this book to read. She had seen it recommended but had not got round to reading it herself since buying it. It sat on the bookshelf for quite a while before I actually picked it up and decided to read it and I think the reason for this was that there wasn't enough on the cover to make me want to read it right away. I always seemed to have something which sounded more appealing to read.
Although it had taken me a while to get round to reading this book, I was a little intrigued by it as I think anyone would be after reading the cover, but somehow it is isn't quite enough to make you want to read it right away in my opinion.
The story begins in a UK detention centre and features Nigerian refugee 'Little Bee' who begins by saying that most days she wishes she was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Right away I found the writing style endearing and as I read further, I found I was drawn in quite quickly to the world of Little Bee as she is released from the centre. All she has is a driving licence belonging to an Englishman named Andrew whom she met on the beach in Nigeria and she decides to make her way to his home, which he shares with his wife Sarah who was also with him on the beach that day. Unfortunately Andrew has since passed away and Sarah is left alone to raise their young son Charlie.
Despite starting well, I found my interest waning a little when the story changed from Little Bee's point of view to that of Sarah who was a difficult character to like in my opinion. Sarah was having an affair with a man who was also married and this carries on after her husband Andrew's death. Sarah came across as quite selfish I found and her attitude to both her husband and the man she was having an affair with, confused me. It seemed at times that she was swearing undying love to one or the other but then at other times it seemed she didn't actually love either of them.
It had been Sarah's idea to go to Nigeria for a holiday with her husband. Yes, the holiday had been a freebie given to her as editor of a magazine, but why she chose to take it baffled me. The holiday changes their lives forever, although it was very difficult to have sympathy for Sarah even though she makes a brave and terrifying decision whilst on that holiday in Nigeria.
I also found the character of Charlie, Sarah's spolit four year old son, quite irritating also. At first I was amused by his insistance on wearing a Batman costume all the time, but this eventually became annoying, as I felt he featured in the story too much. There is a graveside scene which starts off quite harrowing but then became quite ridiculous in my opinion, which I am sure wasn't the author's intention, but it was this sort of thing which spoiled the story for me in places.
The real pleasure in reading this book was the voice of Little Bee. The writing here is excellent and praise must be given to the author for creating a character which was a joy to read about. Her views and thoughts on the world and the comparisons between England and Nigeria were wonderfully described and her voice totally believable. Right from the start, with her wishing she was a British pound coin, Little Bee has a presence which captivates the reader throughout, which ensures you will want to continue reading. For example, when she explains that she had never tasted tea even though it was grown in her country, until she stowed away on a ship to the UK and was exported with it, there is just something enchanting about the way the author has found her voice and this surely must be the magical element of the book. I particularly enjoyed how she addresses the reader directly.
Flashbacks and interwoven narrative strands gradually allow us to piece together the events which took place on the beach in Nigeria and Little Bee's story and even though I felt things weren't revealed as quickly as I would like, I never tired of reading about Little Bee.
I found I was longing for a happy ending for Little Bee and whilst I am not going to give anything away, this book certainly makes you think and at times is quite shocking. I found it realistic in parts but the characters of Sarah and her son Charlie were a bit of a let down.
Overall, 'The Other Hand' is worth a read, but ultimately I think it is over-hyped on the cover and the editor's letter etc. I am glad I read it but the voice of Little Bee is what makes this book interesting and the rest of it falls short in my opinion.
I am beginning to suspect that there are too many books published each year/ month/ week. If I had been browsing in a shop, Chris Cleave's tender tale would barely have caught my eye, despite the bright orange cover and the fact that it was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. (In fact, if anything, the accolade would have put me off: call a literary award after a coffee chain and expect me to take it seriously? I know that freshly brewed coffee and a good book is a pleasant combination, but it cheapens the book somewhat for me. What next? The Argos Playwriting Award? Or the Tesco Poetry Award? The thought makes me shudder. Yes, I know that makes me sound quite snobby.) Fortunately, this was last month's book group choice, so I was able to read an excellent piece of storytelling.
-- The premise... --
...is apparently a secret. There are two women who meet on a beach. Something terrible happens. They meet again two years later and this is where the story starts. In a bid to drum up mystery, the blurb only tells us this much before claiming that 'we don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.' Now, obviously, neither do I wish to spoil the novel for any potential readers, but (much like 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', on the back of which the same plea is made that the magic is in the unfolding of the story,) I suspect that a little more insight may actually come in handy if you are more interested in storylines more than in marketing strategies.
The book is narrated partly by Little Bee, a young Nigerian girl who has attempted to enter the UK illegally. After two years in a detention centre, she seeks out the only people she knows in England: Sarah and Andrew O'Rourke. Sarah, the other narrator, is struggling: she and her husband seem unable to move forward after the incident two years ago. Despite having demanding jobs and complex relationships, neither one can forget what happened. Little Bee's phone call has a stunning impact on their lives and, as the story develops, Sarah begins to reassess her life. What was it that happened two years before? Will any of them ever be able to move forward without fear?
-- The style... --
...is immediately engaging. Little Bee speaks directly to the reader in a very honest way, sometimes revealing her inner feelings, sometimes imagining whole conversations with people in her village back home, sometimes explaining to us what our lives seem like to outsiders. Language is used in a very enjoyable way, especially when Little Bee imagines explaining terms like 'topless' to her people back home. (This 'does not mean, the lady in the newspaper did not have an upper body. It means she was not wearing any garments on her upper body.') Little Bee is keen to speak authoritatively in English but finds it difficult to always judge the nuances of the language, leading to some gentle humour and some thoughtful discussion. (Why is it acceptable for a daily newspaper to print pictures of women with naked breasts?) Cleave varies the voice and syntax of the Nigerian characters, which helps to give different characters distinctive personalities and helped me to imagine the sound of the speech.
I enjoyed reading the story from the first pages and it was a bit of a shock when the narration switched to Sarah. Sarah seems, at times, to be less descriptive than Little Bee in her narration, although this is partly because she does not need to make the same comparisons or to reflect on details that are, to her, simply mundane. Her style is still engaging, although it is less humorous. On reflection, I found this interesting as she would seem to be better equipped to cope with life than the younger woman, but she is perhaps more audible in her fear and dissatisfaction. Despite always expecting the worst (her priorities when entering a new space are very sad), Little Bee seems sometimes the more optimistic of the two; perhaps Cleave is showing the innocence and hope of youth. I found the contrast between the two styles was not at all jarring, which it can be in some books, but was sufficient to develop the characterisation of the two women as well as the story.
The two women take it in turns to tell the story in the first person which helped me to engage more with their histories, hopes and fears. The chapters are very long (there are only 11 in a book with 374 pages) so you have plenty of time to adjust to each character's perspective. Sometimes there are small overlaps so you can see how each of them views a particular situation. The narrative is not strictly linear; there are many flashbacks but they are well prepared for and I never found it confusing. The story is well paced and there is a real sense of anticipation as you wait to learn what happened two years ago and what will ultimately happen to each of the women. I never once reached a point where I felt like I had lost interest in their story, or like I wanted the chapter to end earlier than it did (which can definitely be a problem with very long chapters in some books).
Although there are flashes of humour which made me laugh out loud, and some interesting diversions along the way, the overall tone of the book is very sad and dark. Even some of the humorous elements are actually sad when considered soberly. In depicting the terror Little Bee feels, Cleave creates a genuine chill in the reader. I found it particularly horrifying because I was reading about something that is happening, now, today, somewhere in the world. I tend to think that it is easier sometimes to read stories set in, for example, the Holocaust because, wrongly, there is a certain sense that it is safely in the past, and lessons have been learned and that it was exceptional. In a sense, of course, it was and it has, but the crux of it - people systematically hurting other people - is unlikely to ever stop. However, the fact that the violence and struggle for survival that Cleave depicts is happening today meant that by the time I had finished reading the book I felt like I needed to do something about it, something to help.
The book does not send out a clear message regarding what to do, although there is a definite criticism of the British immigration detention centres. Cleave encourages us to think and my mind is still buzzing. What can be done? Genuinely, possibly, be done? Perhaps Cleave is simply pleading for greater understanding and recognition of the difficulties and dangers that refugees face. Sensibly, Western disbelief of genuine fear felt by refugees is shown in a way that makes it seem perfectly reasonable. How can we possibly, in this comfortable world (and the book is completely located in the upper middle class world where the biggest issues seem to be sartorial dilemmas and what to do with one's garden) really believe in men who will kill women with a machete? This is key to our failure to treat refugees compassionately and the answer is unclear. It is telling that one refugee does not bother telling her story; instead she trades a more useful commodity, as she has learned that we care about trade, commerce, more than truth. The book's one slight flaw in my mind is the ending. After a gradual build up of suspense, and a chilling and compelling twist which complicated my feelings towards one of the characters, there is a rather unbelievable plot development. I was not overly concerned as by that point I was hooked, but as far as resolutions go, it is rather impracticable.
There are touches of melodrama as the story develops, although it never reaches Dickens' level, but it is there because it is true and the writer believes what he is showing us is true. Although I can find overly dramatic stories unconvincing and therefore irritating, even the most dramatic moments in this novel seemed horribly believable.
The ending is beautifully written but I would have liked a final chapter from the other woman's perspective and to find out what happened next. I didn't want the story to end, not because I felt that it was incomplete (I could guess most of what was likely to happen next) but because I wanted more of a sense of 'closure'. It was still a satisfying ending in the sense that it seemed an appropriate way for the narrative to draw to a close.
-- A note on men and women --
As he is a male writer, it is interesting to briefly note Cleave's depiction of the sexes. I felt that he wrote well as a woman, but found his male characters rather frightful. Partly this is because men are the aggressors in the stories the women tell in the detention centre - every story begins with 'the men came and they'. Partly this is because the guards and police officers are mostly men and they seem uncaring, rude or oblivious. But the central male characters are also weak. Andrew, Sarah's husband, is haunted by his choices into severe depression, although at least this revealed a conscience. Lawrence, Sarah's lover, struck me as completely pathetic and unlikeable. As the novel continued, I found more and more flaws in his character and I found it difficult to understand what she saw in him. In contrast, Sarah, although frequently in tears, seems far stronger than either of the men, and Little Bee is even stronger. I found this segregation contributed to the dark tone of the book: is Cleave really trying to suggest that all men are a threat to women? Reflecting on the book now I find this demonisation slightly troubling, but it did not affect my reading of the novel.
-- Conclusions --
I found this novel genuinely compelling: the story is well paced, contains convincing characters and explores a range of themes including loss, hope and the treatment of refugees. The story itself is interesting and there are flashes of warmth and hope in among the dark tale which make it more poignant and more readable. I would recommend this to anybody, but be prepared to sit and devour it in chunks! It is a powerful story, so if you are likely to be affected, I'd grab a box of tissues too.
To firstly introduce this book I am going to write down what the description from the back of the book. "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women. Their lives collide on fateful day and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again - the story starts there.....
Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds."
This description had me really interested in the book before I even read it so I think it's a great way to describe a book. I was genuinely not sure what to expect from this book or what it would be about etc. Don't read this book if you are looking for a light, uplifting read, it is dark, depressing and frankly amazingly sad as well as quite shocking and disturbing but that being said I did enjoy it if enjoy is the right word to describe this book.
Like the description said I don't really want to give too much of this plot away but I will tell you a little bit. The two women in question are Sarah, a magazine executive and Little Bee an illegal immigrant from Nigeria. Two women from two very different worlds whose lives collide in the most unbelievable way. I have to say the way they met was quite shocking, very shocking in fact but I was expecting something a bit more shocking maybe from the description as the build up to their meeting was hyped up very much at the beginning of the book that you kept thinking what on earth could be the big thing that happens to connect them.
The story is told from both their perspectives and chops and changes from one woman to the other. I liked the way the author did this and found it was really nice to hear the opinion of both women and how they saw the world. I have to say that I enjoyed Sarah's version of events better than little Bee's mostly but they were both quite good accounts of events. The book has a lot of different relationships that are dealt with between husband and wife, lovers, mother and child and friends and I think they are very complex lives, intertwined well together.
It is definitely a story that needs to be told and unfortunately is probably more real than any of us would care to admit or know. Nigeria is somewhere that not many people ever visit or know much about but it has so many scary stories to tell that are truly shocking. This was a good read and one I think everyone should be aware of.
The book is 374 pages long and the ISBN number is 978-0-340-96342-5. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award.
" Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds." Suckered in by the blurb I bought this book and took it on holiday. I couldn't put it down. It was a remarkable, captivating read and had me in it's clutches from the first paragraph. Part thriller, part-multicultural colliding worlds saga, the book snarls its characters in the issues of immigration, politics, violence and personal accountability. The book is extremely amusing in places; the wittiness is a stark contrast to the vulgarity and horrific scene the reader is brought to witness at the beginning of the book. However, this is not where the story begins. The lead protagonist captures the reader and pulls them into her plight. She is endearing yet heroic. Throughout reading the book, the author forces the reader to think about how they would deal with certain circumstances. It's a manipulative way of writing but very addictive. What would you do to save a stranger?
Recently I was sent this book as part of a book circle I am a member of. There are 12 members, the idea being that you each post on the latest book to the next member on the list at the start of each month. Every member selects a book to contribute, and you never know what book you will receive next. Once an avid reader, pressures of family life had seen a gradual decline in my reading, and this seemed a great way to get back into this wonderful pastime. Having received the book in this way meant I came to it fresh, with no pre-conceptions. I did notice the front stated it had been short listed for a Costa award, and so was hopeful it would be at least a decent read.
Chris Cleave, the author, is married with 3 children and currently lives in London. On The Other Hand is his second book ,his first being the popularly acclaimed "Incendiary." As a student Chris spent time working in the cafeteria of a Detention Centre for Asylum Seekers. It was this experience that first opened his eyes to the cruel and humiliating way that many asylum seekers are treated and the extreme conditions they are sometimes forced to endure. Several years later the real life incident where an Angolan man committed suicide in order to spare his 13 year old son form being deported made Chris determined to write a novel based around some of these issues.
"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is truly a special story and we don't want to spoil it............The magic is how it unfolds" This is stated in the blurb on the back, and indeed it is true. It is the unfolding of the story as much as the story itself that captivates you. The story revolves around 2 women, one from Nigeria called Little Bee and one from England ,Sarah. It begins with the narrative of Little Bee, reflecting on her situation in the Detention Centre, where she has been for 2 years. The story then flows to the point where the two women meet, for the second time, and from there on it becomes a cleverly weaved mixture of reminiscences about past events, and the unfolding of the events of the present time. The story is told in the first person, with the chapters alternating between Sarah's narrative and that of Little Bee. There is often an overlap between the chapters with some of the events previously described by one of the women retold from the other woman's perspective. The way this is done however does not interrupt the flow of the story, but in fact adds a depth and richness to it. The style of the language used is incredibly cleverly thought out, with Little Bee's "Queen's English" learnt from the British newspapers adding impressive credibility to her story telling. This is intermingled with Nigerian English as Little Bee imagines how her fellow villagers would talk about things. Then there is the endearing language of Sarah's 4 year old son, with all its grammatical errors so typical of 4 year olds. The flow of the story, between the past and present is skilfully done. All the time the suspense builds as the story unfolds. Gradually the events of the past are revealed and the consequences for the future begin to unfold.
Little Bee is only 16 at the start of the novel and immediately you begin to feel a great compassion for her. Despite her youth and relative naivety in some areas , she displays a mature understanding of the world and it's potential horrors well beyond her years. Her descriptions of her own country are captivating and beautiful. The reminiscences of her times with her sister as a child are very poignant. Anyone who has a sister, and even those that don't, couldn't help but feel that special bond that existed between them as young sisters. The wisdom and philosophical attitude to life that she displays are also extraordinary. Her quiet acceptance of how her past life was so different to the lives of those in Britain is repeatedly portrayed:
"What is an adventure? That depends on where you are starting from. little girls in your country, they hide in the little gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and they make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister we used hide in a gap in the jungle with green snakes and monkeys all around us and make believe we had a washing machine and a refrigerator."
Her narrative is both tragic and beautiful and so wonderfully told. You become totally absorbed in her character and can picture her life in every detail. Her growing realisations of how things are different in this county to her own stand in clear contrast to her ongoing struggle to become a British Citizen. Her loneliness and feelings of isolation remain prominent throughout the novel.
"If I was telling this story to the girls back home I would have to explain to them how it is possible to drowning in a river of people and also to feel so very, very alone. But honestly I don't think I would have the words."
Sarah's character represents the modern working mother. To the casual observer she had everything. A successful career, a successful husband, a son and a house in the suburbs. On the inside however she is struggling. She struggles to accept the compromises life demands of you as you grow up. She struggles to balance career and family. She struggles between realizing the dreams of her youth and accepting the less exciting reality of life as a grown up, as a wife and as a mother.
"Compromise eh? Isn't it sad growing up" and you can't help but feel sad for her.
I think there are a lot of elements of Sarah's character that many women today could identify with. Whilst her character does not invoke the same level of compassion as Little Bee's you can't help but feel some sympathy for the dilemmas she faces and her constant struggle to resolve them. The two women from the main characters in the story, with Sarah's 4 year old son also playing a role ,as well as a couple of other somewhat less important characters.
This book for me was a page turner. Whilst the story itself was not especially complex the way in which it gradually unfolded worked wonderfully to create sense of suspense. Despite my recent lapse in reading I managed to read this book in just a few evenings. It took difficult ,serious issues and turned them into a beautiful, poignant, tragic and totally absorbing story. The narrative was perfectly paced providing a wonderful balance between captivating descriptive detail and the unfolding of important details of the plot. The ending, was for me, a very slight let down. I found some of the final twists slightly implausible, detracting somewhat from the very realistic feel of the story. In my opinion I feel that the story should have actually stopped a few pages before it did, to keep the credibility and realness of the novel.It is for this reason I have detracted one star. That said I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the progress of the story, I loved the characters and the language and the whole style of writing. I will certainly be tracking down Chris Cleave's other book to see if it matches up!
If you are at all intrigued by the sound of this book - go out and buy It now. You won't regret it!
I was hooked as soon as I read the back cover of this book and the rest of it did not disappoint.
Unlike anything I have ever read, this book moved me, devastated me, but then ultimately uplifted me. An incredible account of people falling victim of their circumstances and how we can never guess what may be happening behind closed doors.
The way that Cleave manages to capture the voices of his characters is truly astonishing and sucks you into the story from the very first page.
I have recommended this book to so many people telling them all 'I can't tell you what its about but just read it!' and so far no-one has been disappointed.
Whilst this book is by no means a lighthearted beach read, the effect it had on me was profound and left me thinking for a long time after I had finished reading it.
I bought this having never heard of the book or the author, but I was desperate for a new read, and I opted for this one based on what was written on the book:
"Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds"
It was this statement that made me buy it, not the blurb on the back, which was very brief to say the least. Now I'm not completely naive and I kind of guessed that this was just a marketing ploy, but still, I fancied having a look to see what all the fuss was about, and I noticed it was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA novel award, so I thought it must be a decent read.
To be honest, I really did enjoy the book and found myself staying up later than usual to continue reading it as I became engrossed in the story; I even finished it off with my kids yanking at my legs because I just wanted to find out how it ended...so this is proves (to me at least) that it was a good book.
It tells the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee who finds herself in England, first of all in a detention centre, and then she is released into England. Here she tracks down Andrew & Sarah, a couple she met on a beach in Africa a few years earlier.
Andrew and Sarah are a married couple who have a young son, also known as Batman. They had holidayed in Africa a few years earlier in an attempt to reconcile their marriage, but what happened on that beach when they met Little Bee changed their lives forever, and the story kind of backtracks from the moment Little Bee is in England, back towards that moment on the beach.
The chapters are told alternatively from Little Bee's and Sarah's points of view. Little Bee is portrayed as quite a naive Nigerian girl, she sees everything very simply and is often in awe of how the English do things, and she often says that the girls back home would never believe it. She managed to learn English from reading our papers and other literature whilst in the detention centre, so has a good understanding of our language, but certain things she still does not understand. There was one moment of this nature in the book which made me laugh out loud, and I was laughing for quite some time afterwards, which showed that she has not quite grasped the double meanings of certain English words (on page 82 if you're interested).
I'm not sure how to describe Sarah; she seemed like quite a troubled character with a troubled marriage and life. This possibly runs deeper into the past than that moment on the beach with Little Bee, but I think it was that point that perhaps made things worse, especially between her and her husband, Andrew. My thoughts on her are that she is quite a selfish character and when Little Bee turns up on her doorstep, it was probably a turning point in her life, and she actually tries to make a difference, if not just to help Little Bee, but also to bring to the media Little Bee's, and other people's stories.
I don't want to give too much of the story away because obviously the author wants people to read the book with an open mind, so it's difficult to say much more without spoiling it. A lot of the book is based on Little Bee and how she is an illegal immigrant and the things she has had to endure and go through to get where she is now. I'm not sure if the book is trying to make people more aware of what goes on in these developing countries, and to try and shock them, because there are certainly a couple of shocking moments in the book. The moment on the beach is certainly the main point of the book, and the entire story kind of revolves around this moment, but you will have to read it yourself to find out what actually happened.
I'm unsure what the author's intentions are with this book, it is definitely an unusual subject matter, and a very delicate one to say the least. I can only assume he wrote it to draw attention to a couple of subjects - one being the amount of illegal immigrants in this country, and the other being the reasons behind why they feel the need to flock here illegally - what is it in their countries that is driving them away?
It's a tale of sorrow, grief, friendship and love. It takes you on a young African girl's journey from her simple home town in Nigeria all the way to Surrey, and it is on this long journey she experiences all sorts of horror, grief & fear, but she eventually finds friendship with Sarah. And Sarah finally goes out of her way to help Little Bee, but is it enough? You will have to read the book to find out.
The quote at the beginning of this review mentions the word 'magic'; I really would not use that word to describe this book. It's definitely an enjoyable book, but it's not magical. A magical book is one by Cecelia Ahern, not one about an illegal immigrant fearing for her life in every waking minute.
As I said earlier, I enjoyed the book, I found it intriguing and it really did grip me until the last pages. I have to say I was disappointed with the ending, but I think I kind of knew it was going to end that way but was hoping for a final twist! I think the book has perhaps been overhyped and this is the reason it is getting a few bad reviews, but I if you go into it with an open mind, not expecting it to be the best book you have ever read, then you may enjoy it. It is certainly different to any other book I have read.
I was given this book as a birthday present and the blurb intrigued me, so I decided to make it one of the first books I read out of the pile I came back to Spain with.
Reading the back cover doesn't tell you an awful lot about the story, which makes a refreshing change. It simply says: This is the story of two women / Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice / Two years later, they meet again- the story starts there...
I won't tell you too much more about the story, except that it features a Nigerian girl, 'Little Bee,' who comes to England to seek refuge, and contacts the only people she knows there- a couple called Andrew and Sarah, and their four-year-old son, Charlie. Gradually, through alternate chapters told in the first person by Little Bee and Sarah, we piece together the relationship these four people have to one another, and why it is that Little Bee ran away from her home country.
This is certainly an original idea, and one that was interesting to read. Apparently the author took a job as a cleaner during his university holidays at Oxford one year, and spent three days working in a detention centre he hadn't known existed. It was this experience, and the idea that the plight of many refugees coming into this country was completely unknown, that inspired him to write the novel. Some of the tales encountered in the book, therefore, are probably taken from his own personal encounters, although this is never made explicit.
Despite his bravery in attempting to tackle this issue, I also found large chunks of the story quite patronising and largely unrealistic. At times it reads like an academic piece- it is clear that Chris Cleave found his research on detention centres in the UK fascinating, and that he picked up certain quotations he felt reluctant to leave out. This is quite understandable, but it doesn't read well when he steers the narration in an obvious way towards one of these quotes, even though it is not really relevant or necessary to the story.
I also found it quite annoying that he gave the impression virtually all people in the United Kingdom are intolerant of immigration. Perhaps I'm being naive, or overly patriotic, in believing that in fact, the majority of people in the UK have become quite accustomed to immigration now, despite what The Daily Mail may say! Whether this is the case or not, I would certainly expect someone who is employed to accompany immigrants back to their home countries to know which country they are flying to, particularly when sat on the plane, and to know where Nigeria is- something one of the characters in this book is totally ignorant of.
The other problem I had when reading this was the way Little Bee wrote. She claims to have learnt 'The Queen's English,' and then proceeds to use two Americanisms on the very first page. She speaks completely flawless English, despite it not being her native language, except that she cannot, for some inexplicable reason, use contractions e.g. 'we've' instead of 'we have.'
I'm convinced, after reading this, that the author was brought up to speak American, rather than British, English, although according to his biography, he grew up in Cameroon and Buckinghamshire!
The device Chris Cleave uses for expressing how different things are for Little Bee in England to in Nigeria is quite clever- she tells the reader how shocked and surprised the girls back home would be if they could see what she is seeing. In so doing, she doesn't come across as ignorant herself. However, the language is again quite unrealistic here, possibly because Little Bee writes what they would say using her own 'Queen's English.' The only thing that sounds even remotely Nigerian in what they say is the word 'weh', which is used over-used.
In conclusion, I admire Mr Cleave for tackling such a sensitive issue, particularly when he lives in London and portrays the English as being narrow-minded bigots (perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration!), but I think this could have been better written. I would like to see a similar story written by either a native Brit (whatever that is!) or a refugee to the country, as I think it would be far more convincing and far less like a self-righteous lecture, coming from someone who has actually personally experienced a similar situation themselves.
"The other Hand" by Chris Cleave
Published by Sceptre; Paperback Edition
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chris Cleave was born in London in 1973 and was brought up both in Cameroon and Buckinghamshire and went to Oxford University where he studied Psychology. He has written two novels, 'Incendiary' which was published in twenty countries and made into a film starring Ewan MacGregor. His second novel is the one I am reviewing 'The Other Hand' as it is known in the UK but in the USA and Canada it is published under the name 'Little Bee' and this book was published in 2008 over here but 2009 in the USA and Canada. Apparently this is due to be made into a film with Nicole Kidman starring in it so I will be looking out for this with interest.
BACKGROUND TO THE BOOK:
Chris Cleave says that the novel is not a true story but it is based on a number of stories he has heard about over the years and one story in particular did inspire him to write the book. The inspirational true story was that of an Angolan man called Manuel Bravo who claimed asylum in the UK in 2001 for him and his family on the grounds that they would be killed if they returned to Angola. He waited for four years not knowing his fate and then one day he and his 13 year old son were taken and held in an immigration removal centre in the South of England. Manuel was told they were being sent back to Angola the next day so that night he hung himself as he knew that a minor could not be repatriated alone. He took his own life to save that of his son which must have been an amazingly difficult decision and he would never know how it would work out for his son.
Another inspiration for writing this novel stems from when the author was working over one university summer break in a canteen of Campsfield House in Oxfordshire which is a detention centre for asylum seekers. This is in reality a prison for people who have committed no crime save trying to escape from their own country for some reason and attempting to get in to live in England without obtaining permission first. I think that unless you have ever been in this situation it is hard to imagine what it must feel like to be that afraid to stay in your country of birth. I can remember when I was about 10 years old , standing on our balcony watching Georgtown ( Guyana) burning only about 5 miles from where we lived. There were riots and marches, our school bus was bombed and we had British soldiers on all the Sugar estates. It was pretty scary but nothing compared to some of the stories you hear from asylum seekers.
Chris Cleave points out that he had been living within ten miles of the place for three years and known know it existed. He said found the conditions in there quite distressing and as he got talking with asylum seekers he learned about their stories and discovered that many had
" been through hell and were likely to be sent back to hell. Some of them were beautiful characters and it was deeply upsetting to see how we were treating them...... and when we deport them it's often a death sentence. I knew I had to write about it, because it's such a dirty secret."
The book begins with a quotation
"Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeting( note the typo) persecution and conflict." This comes from "Life in the United Kingdom", which is the text book given to immigrants preparing for their citizenship test in the UK. The author uses this to open his novel as he feels that it reflects the way we see asylum seekers and immigrants. We give them this book to learn how to become good British citizens and cannot even be bothered to have it edited correctly.
The author tells us that it took two years to research the conflicts in Nigeria and talk to a number of asylum seekers learning about their stories prior to writing the book.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
Essentially the story is told by two very different women whose lives become entangled through a chance encounter in Nigeria on a beach one day which was change the course of both their lives forever.
Sarah is a middle class English woman married to a nice normal English man and they have a son who is about 3 or 4 years old and who thinks he is Batman. Sarah and her husband are offered a free holiday to Nigeria which they feel is too good an opportunity to miss. I found it a little strange personally that anyone would holiday in Nigeria as it is not exactly politically stable even now and in the past it has been extremely unstable because of conflicts with oil companies. It would be like going on a holiday to Afghanistan or Iraq today. Having said that, this is only a small quibble so I suppose I can't really complain and Sarah and Andrew had to be there in order for the story to take place.
Little Bee is a Nigerian village girl whose village is destroyed by the oil company's workers and obviously manages to escape and get to England. I'm not giving too much of the story away saying that she escaped from Nigeria as this must be the case as the story is about both Sarah and Little Bee and so obviously she must get to England.
The story is told alternatively from Sarah's and then Little Bee's view and not always in chronological order. The first half of the book is working backwards into history, while the second half works forwards into the future. The reader gradually learns the full story by piecin the jigsaw together of information together.
It starts with Little Bee in the detention centre. Little Bee's voice is much simpler and has the grammatical tone of an African speaking English. We see things through her eyes and she tells us what is different by telling the reader what she would have to explain to 'the girls back home'. This is a very clever as we become aware of little cultural differences without little Bee actually pointing them out as shocking or surprising to her. She is able to show her developing understanding of this English culture through her explanations to her 'girls back home' and in this way Little Bee is not made to look ignorant by commenting on these differences herself.
The relationship between the two women becomes extremely close as the story develops. Little Bee instantly accepts 'Batman' and he in turn bonds with Little Bee. They become a family unit bound together by their past experience and the problem of little Bee's refugee status.
The story is quite shocking in parts but I won't discuss that aspect as it would spoil it for anyone who does fancy reading this. I was also upset by some of Little Bee's story which I am assuming the author developed from interviews with asylum seekers which makes them all the more upsetting to know that they are based on facts.
I liked the way the story is told and that Chris Cleave uses different writing and grammatical styles for each of the women's stories so it is easy to read and picture who is talking. This style of using two voices enables the reader to see the same event though different eyes and also enables the reader to learn a bit more about each character's story as the novel develops.
I also like the way humour is used in the novel to balance the more shocking aspects of the story. The lighter aspects of the story do not detract at all from the seriousness of the novel's message. It is a bit like the way humour is used in POW camps or classically in 'MASH' to relieve the tension of the horrors of war.
HOW DOES THIS STORY REFLECT UPON EVENTS IN THE WORLD TODAY?
Today there are probably as many people seeking asylum or refugee status as the ever have been in the world. In the UK alone there are:
"Detention sites: 11 (2009)
Detention capacity: 2,935 (2009)
Removals and voluntary departures:66,275 (2008)
Asylum seekers: 10,900 (end 2007)
Irregular residents: 525,000-950,000 (end 2007)
Max. length of detention: No limit"
The above facts were taken from the 'global Detention Project on line and the figures are for the United Kingdom. Frighteningly you can click on any number of other countries around the world and see similarly disturbing figures.
So Chris Cleave has chosen a very current topic to bring to people's attention through his story and I think he does it in a very sensitive way without sentimentalising the story in any way.
I found the book so fascinating and I enjoyed the way the author told the story through two different people's voices, Sarah and Little Bee as it gave two very contrasting viewpoints, one from the developed world and the other from the less developed world of Nigeria. The descriptions of Sarah's son who insists on dressing and indeed, being Batman provides humour and balance to the story which could have so easily become very depressing.
It certainly made me think about all these people who are so terrified of living in their own country that they will give up everything to escape. When I was teaching I had a young boy in my Y4 class who had escaped by hiding in a lorry with his parents from one of the Eastern European countries. He was a delightful child and had been through so much and yet he worked really hard and was successful in school. I remember him telling me about his journey here and how hungry and scared he was. I think stories like this are great for allowing us the chance to appreciate what we have and wake up to the fact that others are suffering in the world and I admire Chris Cleave's determination to write this novel to bring the plight of asylum seekers and refugees to the attention of the public in a very interesting and entertaining rather than judgemental and lecturing way.
I would certainly recommend reading this book and it does open your eyes to the struggle some people have just to survive. It is a good story told in a sensitive way and very well written too.
I can't say how it compares with his other book as I have not read it and I'm unlikely to read this again as I very rarely do re- read books except by mistake but that is just my memory failing me !!
The information about the background to the book and the author I rsearched on the internet on a site about the author and this book as I was interested in why he had chosen to write the novel on this subject and also where he did his research about asylum seekers.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
I began to read this book on the basis of its nominations for literary awards and the fact that I had read a couple of reviews about it. I didn't really know what to expect from the plot, but the publishers blurb had me intrigued so I gave it a try. The narrative jumps around between places and is non-sequencial (i.e. flashbacks) which some people might find offputting, but I think it gives the narrative more depth and keeps you gripped to find out what happens. The character of Little Bee, a young woman seeking refuge from a violent past in Nigeria, is richly rendered, and shares with you the full range of her emotions and experiences, and there are moments when events are distressing and upsetting. The family that she becomes entangled with (I won't spoil the plot by saying any more than that) are also deeply flawed but very believeable and the book was thought provoking and satisfying as a result.
"The Other Hand" by Chris Cleave is a book about which there has been a lot of hype. It was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award. The back of the book continues the hype by saying "We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it....... Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it enfolds."
Personally I think this is a marketing ploy to get you to buy the book. I wouldn't read any book and tell someone everything that happens as it would spoil the story. I don't think that this book is any different so I do believe they are just hyping the story up to get people interested and thinking what it is all about.
That said though I did really enjoy this book. I read it on holiday and finished it in just over a day. So I shall now try to review the book without spoiling any of the story as the author has asked me to! The book revolves around two women and they are the narrators of the story taking a chapter in turn to reveal their story. The two women meet with terrible consequences and their lives are changed forever then two years later they meet again and once more they have a dramatic effect on each others lives.
I could tell you much more about who the women are and I don't think it would really spoil the story but I think part of the charm and interest of the book is that you start reading it not really knowing anything about it. The book is really well written and I enjoyed the writing style which is very descriptive. The book deals with some very difficult issues illegal immigrants, death, oil-related conflicts and some parts of the book are quite disturbing to read. However there are also some really humorous parts of the book that made me laugh out loud and I really enjoyed how the author could mix these two things together.
The book is a real page-turner which meant I read it in just over a day because I was desperate to find out what was going to happen. It does keep you guessing right to the end and I liked that because at times I thought it was going to be predictable.
If you want a good book to read that will captivate you from the first page then I would recommend "The Other Hand" to you. It is a wonderful combination of contrasts at times deeply shocking but at other times laugh out loud funny. It is also tragic but inspiring and leaves you feeling moved.
"The Other Hand" is Chris Cleave's second novel, his first is called "Incendiary" I'm not sure what it is about but it has won many awards and based on how much I enjoyed this book I will certainly be having a look at it too.
Currently £3.86 from Amazon
Pages - 400
As I wandered into my local Waterstones on that fabled Friday to treat myself to my monthly fresh book - much as I adore and live through second hand books, nothing beats that new book smell - I came face to face with this little number.
I don't own it in bright orange, but the design of the cover was interesting enough that I picked it up. Yes I do judge a book by it's cover. The blurb reads as follows:
"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enoguh to buy it so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there, but the book doesn't. And it's what happens afterwards that is most important. Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is how it unfolds."
Now I'm going to stick by that blurb, because it feels like an agreement between reader and author and I'd like to respect that wish (some say the blurb is nothing more than a marketing ploy, but it does make the story more magically - you're thrown into it clueless and learn as you go along) so instead I'm going to attempt to review it without giving anything away... quick stretch of the typing fingers...and... go...
It all starts with *blank* and then *blank*, *blank* and *blank* happens. I joke. I stall for time.
The other hand is a very uncomfortable read, and I did't find it that funny, but that could have been because I was so absorbed in the horror of the African beach scene, which truely is nightmarish. It left me with a lot of ethical questions to consider, and the characters and their individual journeys stayed with me for a long time after I'd finally closed the book. Chris Cleeve is definatly a writer to watch as he creates a world very fluid and easy to engage with and his characters, to me at least, were an instant hit.
I'd like to finish my story about the fated Friday I picked up this book. It wasn't just the blurb that intrigued me, I also had my hands on one of the few signed first edition hard backs left in the shop. I couldn't possibly put it down after that.
I'd recommend this book to anyone, and a few of my friends have borrowed it - which is good because it means I can now talk about it freely with someone, and some parts in it you probably will need to discuss with someone, if only for an interesting ethical debate.
This is definatly not a feel good book. And when I finished it I wasn't sure how I felt. Disgusted? Dissapointed? Guilty? Happy? Thoughtful? But I was definatly satisfied.
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is a book not for the faint hearted, it's not a bed time read nor one you can pick up and put down as and when. It's a story to be engulfed in.
I read a lot of books and tend to select them based on people's recommendations or when they are on special offer. The Other Hand by Chris Cleeves was one such book, half price and a Costa Coffee award implied I would be in for a good read. The blurb was different from most, not telling you about the story but simply that the writer wanted to let the story unfold as you read it and that it was based around two women. I like a book that dares to be different and was thoroughly intrigued by the confidence that a reader doesn't require a blurb with too much information merely a hook to pull them into purchasing it.
Had this daring tactic been followed through by a good book I would have been delighted but sadly not. The story is centred around two women, Little Bee and Sarah. The character development was extremely good and the big plus point for me was Little Bee. Chris Cleeves had clearly done his research and the Nigerian dialect looped through the pages as Little Bee recounts what she might tell her people back home about the English way of life. It was a nice and welcome touch and made Little Bee come alive from the page. As for Sarah unfortunately I have seen the middle aged, bored housewives routine done much better in other books and felt that she was a flat character really, a shame and for me I became frustrated with her very quickly.
The other significant character for me was Charlie. Sarah's son who's insistence on being Batman was touching and able to deal with complex issues through a child's eyes. The imagery of the book was wonderful in parts with fantastic descriptions of Nigeria.
The writer dealt well with the emotions of grief and the first section of the book with the detention centre was genuinely interesting. I found the insistent tension building to what had brought the women together pretty dull. And a total anti-climax when the truth was uncovered From my point of view his failing was that I didn't really care about Little Bee's sister, her character was not developed enough until later in the book for me to feel too emotionally involved in what had happened to her.
The bad points apart from those above was the ending. It seemed to fizzle out completely and a real shame. I still cant quite get my head round why this won an award, apart from possibly that it dealt with a subject matter we don't read a lot about, but clearly the critics saw something in it and if you can get it free in the library why not but I wouldn't buy it yourself.
"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it."
This is the first line of the blurb on the back of this book. It goes on to give minimal details of what the story is roughly about because "you need to know enough to buy it". Whilst trying to write this review, I was torn as to whether I should share the books secrets, because the last line of the blurb says "Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds."
However, after reading the book, I feel that this clever attempt at luring the reader into buying the book should be exposed and I SHALL say what the general gist is about - so if you aren't interested and want to discover the "magic" yourself, I suggest you skip this part and I'll let you know when you can read again!
Little Bee is a refugee who has landed in the UK after fleeing a war torn Nigeria. She has many horror stories to tell and is constantly thinking of how she can kill herself in any given situation if "the men come" for her. Sarah is a white middle class woman, married with a little boy, a good career and a nice home in Surrey. One day their lives collide in the worst possible way and from that day on, their lives and their fates become interlinked.
The story is told from both women's points of view. There are other characters - men mainly - in this story but they do not have a real say and this may be a clever way of showing that the men in the story are weak, bad or pure evil. The story starts with "Little Bee", at only sixteen, she has already seen so much atrocity that it shouldn't be allowed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her perspective on things, after spending two years in a detention centre when she arrives in the UK; she spends her time learning the Queens English so that she might fit in when (or if) she escapes. Her take on life is uplifting, courageous, intelligent and heart warming. The author has successfully taken the point of view of a 16-year-old African girl, making her views and opinions simple but smarter than most adults. I loved the simplicity of the words that were written, but they were written with such wisdom that you know that this is not a simple girl.
As well as this, Little Bee's descriptions are just so beautiful that I wanted to memorise them. For instance:
"It was the month of May and there was warm sunshine dripping through the holes between the clouds, like the sky was a broken blue bowl and a child was trying to keep honey in it."
This was one of my favourite lines from the book, but there are many more beautiful descriptions that mainly came from Little Bee's perspective that made reading this just pure joy.
Sarah's perspective is, of course, much more British. Although both women are lost in their own different kind of grief and despair, it is Little Bee who should evoke the most sympathy, but of course readers will relate to Sarah's plight much more. I can't really say much more without spoiling the story so I'll just say that Sarah's character, although not as eloquent as Little Bee, was just as interesting and courageous. Both were strong women who should bravery in the face of danger and sadness.
Now on to the bad points. Actually, it is not necessarily that this book has any bad points - so far the characters are immensely interesting and the writing is beautiful - but I think that the hype that surrounds the book, has like most things, let it down. I have once before fallen for book hype when I picked up "The Shack" by William P. Young. As well as the blurb on the back there is a never ending list of quotes of how "powerful" the story is etc from a ream of noted newspapers. Added to this, there is a note from the senior editor at the front of the book who again reiterates how special the book is and how it gave them goose bumps! I'm afraid to say that I fell for all of this (I'd like to know who wouldn't!) and decided to buy and read.
However, like I have said, it was a bit of a let down. The story itself is an interesting one, and at the beginning of the book when I discovered how these women crossed paths, I was intrigued and knew that the stories premise had lots of promise. I carried on reading through some interesting turn of events in the story and along the way enjoyed the charms of the characters and the beautiful descriptions....only to be let down towards the latter part of the book which became less interesting and then just a disappointment. I do acknowledge that this story is supposed to show a very special relationship between two women and how it changes their lives and perspectives on things, but I couldn't help finishing it and feeling that it lacked something that would merit this being a "special book". Don't ask me what that is, I don't know, I just thought it should!
~~ YOU CAN LOOK BACK NOW IF YOU DIDN'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT IT WAS ABOUT! ~~
Overall I'd say that this is a book worth reading, and I'd be interested to know if others thought the same as me, or whether they think I'm talking crap and agree with those clever people at the Costa Novel Awards who short-listed this book last year. This book has a clever and interesting storyline, brilliant characters, beautiful descriptions and writing, but just something missing. If it had been short listed and hadn't had all the hype around it, I would probably have read it at face value and thought it was pretty good, but as it is, I can't help feeling ripped off once again that this wasn't the special book It was billed to be.