Book #35

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

From the author of the international bestseller Incendiary comes a haunting novel about the tenuous friendship that blooms between two disparate strangers---one an illegal Nigerian refugee, the other a recent widow from suburban London.

This book has two titles - Little Bee in some places, and The Other Hand in others. Before I started reading, I found Little Bee to be a much more intriguing title. Now that I understand the meaning and poignance of that other hand - I feel entirely different. And although I’d like to explore this title and make comment, this review will remain as spoiler free as possible.

Cleave gives us two women of striking contrast - Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee, and Sarah is a white middle-class editor of a fashion magazine. Normally their worlds would never collide, but they do - creating devastation for Sarah and saviour for Little Bee.

The first few chapters really highlight how important this story is. I was ashamed at my lack of knowledge on our country’s treatment of refugees, embarrassed as I was reminded these people are not just a number of sad stories. There was hope and happiness in their lives at one point, and perhaps there still is; enough to allow them to analyse and mourn their situation. The part which made me stop breathing for a moment was Little Bee’s ability to visit any place, any room, and find something there which would allow her to kill herself should the necessity arrive for it.

Where Little Bee’s voice was poignant and engaging, Sarah was a stereotypical shadow. Her ways of behaving, her dialogue, her just being, didn’t ring true for me at all. I’m not sure Cleave’s female voice was well-developed, and could have done with a little more research, particularly when it came to mother instincts.

After a certain point, the story fell flat for me. There were various plot developments and characters introduced which seemed entirely redundant, and the ending (although very emotionally evocative) felt pretty rushed. Everything was intense and pointing in the right direction, until it dissolved completely, and I remained unconvinced.

I believe this is a very important book with a strong message. It’s tragic, and highlights the failings of our immigration system. I do feel, however, Cleave should have hit us harder, instead of diluting the horrors with the types of suburban ramblings we have experienced and read many times before.