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Chris Cleave: The Other Hand

When the first edition of John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas appeared, the blurb gave little away, noting, “Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book.” On Chris Cleave’s second novel, The Other Hand (2008),  the blurb begins “We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book” and continues, cards close to its chest, to say “It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.” As oblique blurbs go, it’s not a patch on Boyne’s which hinted at the book’s content, rather than second guess the reader.

The cover – available in two colours – continues the gimmickry,  fetishising its collectability, noting that it’s a signed first edition. Most baffling is a page by Suzie Dooré (“I’m Chris Cleave’s editor, and I’m writing to tell you how extraordinary The Other Hand is…”). The intended effect is presumably drooling anticipation, but dislike seems more of a foregone conclusion.

Thankfully, the novel opens brightly, with Little Bee riffing on how she’d rather be a pound coin than an African girl:

How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called, globalisation. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can leap the turnstiles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi. Where to, sir? Western civilisation, my good man, and make it snappy.

Rather than take that airport taxi, Little Bee has fled Nigeria for the United Kingdom by more illegal means and, having been stopped at immigration, has found herself detained for two years, an experience that has made her who she is today, a well-spoken young lady, in tune to the world around her:

I was born – no, I was reborn – in captivity. I learned my language from your newspapers, my clothes are your cast-offs, and it is your pound that makes my pocket ache with its absence. Imagine a young woman cut out from a smiling Save the Children magazine advertisement, who dresses herself in threadbare pink clothes from the recycling bin in your local supermarket car park and speaks English like the leader column of The Times, if you please. I would cross the street to avoid me.

As Little Bee tells her side of the story, the chapters alternate and intertwine with the story of Sarah O’Rourke, an editor for a women’s magazine that doesn’t quite know what it should be. At the outset Sarah tells us that her husband Andrew, himself a journalist, has taken his own life, for reasons unknown. Other than a young son – who dresses as Batman and quickly becomes tiresome – there doesn’t seem to be much understanding between the two, Andrew’s mind never being readable:

I had been standing on a bare concrete slab in our garden, asking Andrew exactly when the hell he planned to build his bloody glasshouse there. That was the biggest issue in my life – that glasshouse, or the lack of it. That absent glasshouse, and all other structures past and future that might hopefully be erected in the larger emotional absence between me and my husband.

Sarah regularly drops hints about her missing finger, never feeling the need to expand on them. It’s here that it becomes apparent that Cleave is telling the story rather than his characters – as the characters have little reason to hold back on expanding, the only reason can be that the author is deliberately withholding the information until he’s ready to share it. On page 132 we get the admission that “it was finally time to face up to what had happened on the beach”.

Similarly, Little Bee’s narrative, in constantly referring to how she learned the Queen’s English from newspapers, seems a cynical device to avoid the trouble of crafting a believable voice in a Nigerian dialect. Since usage of the Queen’s English only really features in two dealings with public servants, it can hardly be said that it’s crucial to the story, other than to raise her lingual skills above all around her. The question of what newspapers were read to get such a poetic flair to her voice lingers, too.

It’s clear to see that in writing The Other Hand Cleave wants to tackle hard hitting topics such as immigration and the effects of globalisation on the other cultures but he has a knack for unashamedly dropping his research into dialogue (“‘They gave you a pink form to write down what had happened to you. This was the grounds for your asylum application…'”)  Not to say that he doesn’t get things across more subtly, such as this exchange between Sarah and Lawrence, her lover, discussing Little Bee and British attitudes to immigration:

‘A detention centre? Christ, what did she do?’

‘Nothing. Asylum seekers, apparently they just lock them up when they arrive here.’

‘For two years?’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘I don’t believe her. Two years in detention? She must have done something.’

‘She was African and she didn’t have any money. I suppose they gave her a year for each.’

At the heart of The Other Hand is the notion of identity and all of the characters are, like Sarah’s magazine, trying to find who they are. After the hyped beach scene – yes, it is grisly – the book does become more interesting, but it can’t get away from a slim thread of grating humour – the O’Rourke’s son; Little Bee’s observations – and a glaze of sentimentality that ensure this little bee is more the bumbling sort whose buzz precedes it.

October 22, 2008

11 responses to Chris Cleave: The Other Hand

  1. Chris Cleave said:

    Thank you for reviewing my book, Stewart. You write well and you’ve made some neat points. It was eye-opening for me to read how the book’s packaging had provoked your dislike – I hadn’t realised what a strong effect the marketing materials could have on critical response. Since you’re offering this box for comments, I have one. It’s that you might want to take a deep breath next time you’re considering calling a writer “cynical”. To write that I make my protagonist speak the way she does in order “to avoid the trouble of crafting a believable voice” is a frankly silly claim to make of a text that uses sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects. The point about the Little Bee character is that she finds herself welcome neither in Nigeria nor in the United Kingdom, and thus everything in her behaviour and her language acquisition speaks to her desire to belong somewhere. Hence her determination to speak a more anglicised English. If my text didn’t communicate that to you, then by all means you should criticise my powers as a writer – but to label an author as “cynical”, surely you’d need stronger evidence. At worst, you might level the lesser charge of “lazy” – but of course I would take pains to reject that too. I don’t write “to avoid the trouble” of doing something difficult. I write precisely because it is difficult. And I think we have something in common there – your website is an excellent piece of work, a true labour of love – and it’s because I like it that I’m bothering to comment like this. All best, Chris Cleave.

  2. Stewart said:

    Hi Chris, thanks for responding. I really appreciate it. Regarding the marketing, I felt it a bit much. That the book explicitly states it to be “extremely funny” puts a weight on its shoulders that a new book perhaps doesn’t need.

    …you might want to take a deep breath next time you’re considering calling a writer “cynical”. To write that I make my protagonist speak the way she does in order “to avoid the trouble of crafting a believable voice” is a frankly silly claim to make of a text that uses sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects.

    I never said you were cynical, but that I thought the device of Little Bee’s Queen’s English voice was. It was never intended to be some sort of by proxy statement. While it does “use sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects” I simply never found Little Bee’s voice believable. I do agree that to say “is a cynical device” rather than “seems a cynical device” is wrong, and I’ve changed this single word. Overall I find myself agreeing with with Tim Teeman in The Times, when he says “To really engage with it, you will have to love Sarah”, something I never felt I could.

    All the best with the book and the forthcoming movie of Incendiary, Chris. I notice that The Other Hand will be published in the US as Little Bee: it makes me wonder if there will be changes to the narrative, notably those lines where she refers to the reader’s language as “your language”.

  3. Anne Brooke said:

    This is so very much what I thought of this novel (how I hated that blurb and the editor’s ridiculously patronising letter – arrgghh!! – if I hadn’t had to tackle this for my upcoming Vulpes Libris review, I would have put it down firmly and gone off muttering at that point …) that it was a delight to read this piece – so glad it wasn’t just me who felt those things!

    Cleave can write, if he puts his mind to it, but I think the editor needed to stop typing needless letters to the reader and do a little more firm editing for this one really to hit the mark …

    Anne B

  4. Stewart said:

    how I hated that blurb and the editor’s ridiculously patronising letter – arrgghh!!

    Yes, it still rankles in my mind.

    I saw recently that Sceptre are being quirky again, this time with David Benioff’s City Of Thieves. Paperbacks have a slip of paper sashed around saying, “We love this book so much we’ll give you TWO other great books for FREE if you don’t love it too.” The mistake here is that if they love the book so much and the reader doesn’t love it, then the two other ‘great’ books are perhaps as unlikely to be loved.

    Cleave can write, if he puts his mind to it, but I think the editor needed to stop typing needless letters to the reader and do a little more firm editing for this one really to hit the mark …

    I agree with this. He can use words well, it’s just that the characters felt unbelievable and, since it’s them I was following, it fell apart for me. I do think the editorial capacity should have been restricted to working with the prose rather than getting hooked into silly marketing gimmicks.

  5. Anne Brooke said:

    Really?? What is wrong with Sceptre?? Why can’t books stand or fall on their own?? I hate it that it’s coming to this. It makes me very angry, though I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, at least in the literary world. Does everyone now think readers are stupid or something??

    Sound of screaming from the shires …

    ==:O

    Anne B

  6. Pingback: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: But on the other hand … « Vulpes Libris

  7. Mary O'Malley said:

    I am force feeding mysself through this book for our book club. I find it so artificial, superficial and contrived that I can see I am going to be very unpopular next Wednesday. Little Bee – even the name grates- use of Queen’s English versus what the girls at home would say and think simply does not ring through. As for the beach scene, the grave scene, the farm scene, the dialogue throughout, nothing is authentic. Chris Cleave does not get the woman’s voice at all,- neither Sarah nor Bee.

  8. Stewart said:

    I feel your pain, Mary. I wouldn’t worry about being unpopular when Wednesday comes around, as you may find that others share your thoughts. I would be surprised if others didn’t.

    Based on this review of his other novel, Incendiary, it would seem that poorly implemented female narrators are his trademark.

  9. Katie said:

    I must say, that I have been deeply touched by this book, as a 2nd year English lit student, this is so far the best book I have come across, and I can’t imagine another changing that and will reccomend it to anyone who will listen – truly an amazing book! To Chris Cleave, thankyou 🙂
    I’m now of to Waterstones to check out your other offerings.

  10. Stewart said:

    I suppose all I can say, Katie, is that I envy your position: all those much better books and authors you’ve yet to discover. Enjoy!

  11. Ellie said:

    Hi, I have just finished this book and am most disappointed. The blurb on the back said ‘Once you have read it , tell your friends. But don’t reveal the ending. The magic is in how it unfolds.” What’s to reveal?? I was left feeling flat and uninspired. I guess I must have missed something or I am just too practical for airy-fairy endings. Yes it was nice that the little native children were playing with this ‘never before seen’ little skinny white kid but the fact remained that Little Bee was being arrested and would probably be executed – or do I presume too much? I found the story quite touching in places, quite confronting in others, never “hilarious” and ultimately a let down. I guess it was too “realistic” for me (no happy ending) – I was looking for fiction or I would have read a non-fiction account of these types of harrowing stories – which I am sure there are many. I was left high and dry and thinking “but what actually happened to Little Bee?”.

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11 responses to Chris Cleave: The Other Hand

  1. Chris Cleave said:

    Thank you for reviewing my book, Stewart. You write well and you’ve made some neat points. It was eye-opening for me to read how the book’s packaging had provoked your dislike – I hadn’t realised what a strong effect the marketing materials could have on critical response. Since you’re offering this box for comments, I have one. It’s that you might want to take a deep breath next time you’re considering calling a writer “cynical”. To write that I make my protagonist speak the way she does in order “to avoid the trouble of crafting a believable voice” is a frankly silly claim to make of a text that uses sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects. The point about the Little Bee character is that she finds herself welcome neither in Nigeria nor in the United Kingdom, and thus everything in her behaviour and her language acquisition speaks to her desire to belong somewhere. Hence her determination to speak a more anglicised English. If my text didn’t communicate that to you, then by all means you should criticise my powers as a writer – but to label an author as “cynical”, surely you’d need stronger evidence. At worst, you might level the lesser charge of “lazy” – but of course I would take pains to reject that too. I don’t write “to avoid the trouble” of doing something difficult. I write precisely because it is difficult. And I think we have something in common there – your website is an excellent piece of work, a true labour of love – and it’s because I like it that I’m bothering to comment like this. All best, Chris Cleave.

  2. Stewart said:

    Hi Chris, thanks for responding. I really appreciate it. Regarding the marketing, I felt it a bit much. That the book explicitly states it to be “extremely funny” puts a weight on its shoulders that a new book perhaps doesn’t need.

    …you might want to take a deep breath next time you’re considering calling a writer “cynical”. To write that I make my protagonist speak the way she does in order “to avoid the trouble of crafting a believable voice” is a frankly silly claim to make of a text that uses sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects.

    I never said you were cynical, but that I thought the device of Little Bee’s Queen’s English voice was. It was never intended to be some sort of by proxy statement. While it does “use sharply differentiated dialogue in multiple registers and dialects” I simply never found Little Bee’s voice believable. I do agree that to say “is a cynical device” rather than “seems a cynical device” is wrong, and I’ve changed this single word. Overall I find myself agreeing with with Tim Teeman in The Times, when he says “To really engage with it, you will have to love Sarah”, something I never felt I could.

    All the best with the book and the forthcoming movie of Incendiary, Chris. I notice that The Other Hand will be published in the US as Little Bee: it makes me wonder if there will be changes to the narrative, notably those lines where she refers to the reader’s language as “your language”.

  3. Anne Brooke said:

    This is so very much what I thought of this novel (how I hated that blurb and the editor’s ridiculously patronising letter – arrgghh!! – if I hadn’t had to tackle this for my upcoming Vulpes Libris review, I would have put it down firmly and gone off muttering at that point …) that it was a delight to read this piece – so glad it wasn’t just me who felt those things!

    Cleave can write, if he puts his mind to it, but I think the editor needed to stop typing needless letters to the reader and do a little more firm editing for this one really to hit the mark …

    Anne B

  4. Stewart said:

    how I hated that blurb and the editor’s ridiculously patronising letter – arrgghh!!

    Yes, it still rankles in my mind.

    I saw recently that Sceptre are being quirky again, this time with David Benioff’s City Of Thieves. Paperbacks have a slip of paper sashed around saying, “We love this book so much we’ll give you TWO other great books for FREE if you don’t love it too.” The mistake here is that if they love the book so much and the reader doesn’t love it, then the two other ‘great’ books are perhaps as unlikely to be loved.

    Cleave can write, if he puts his mind to it, but I think the editor needed to stop typing needless letters to the reader and do a little more firm editing for this one really to hit the mark …

    I agree with this. He can use words well, it’s just that the characters felt unbelievable and, since it’s them I was following, it fell apart for me. I do think the editorial capacity should have been restricted to working with the prose rather than getting hooked into silly marketing gimmicks.

  5. Anne Brooke said:

    Really?? What is wrong with Sceptre?? Why can’t books stand or fall on their own?? I hate it that it’s coming to this. It makes me very angry, though I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark, at least in the literary world. Does everyone now think readers are stupid or something??

    Sound of screaming from the shires …

    ==:O

    Anne B

  6. Pingback: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: But on the other hand … « Vulpes Libris

  7. Mary O'Malley said:

    I am force feeding mysself through this book for our book club. I find it so artificial, superficial and contrived that I can see I am going to be very unpopular next Wednesday. Little Bee – even the name grates- use of Queen’s English versus what the girls at home would say and think simply does not ring through. As for the beach scene, the grave scene, the farm scene, the dialogue throughout, nothing is authentic. Chris Cleave does not get the woman’s voice at all,- neither Sarah nor Bee.

  8. Stewart said:

    I feel your pain, Mary. I wouldn’t worry about being unpopular when Wednesday comes around, as you may find that others share your thoughts. I would be surprised if others didn’t.

    Based on this review of his other novel, Incendiary, it would seem that poorly implemented female narrators are his trademark.

  9. Katie said:

    I must say, that I have been deeply touched by this book, as a 2nd year English lit student, this is so far the best book I have come across, and I can’t imagine another changing that and will reccomend it to anyone who will listen – truly an amazing book! To Chris Cleave, thankyou 🙂
    I’m now of to Waterstones to check out your other offerings.

  10. Stewart said:

    I suppose all I can say, Katie, is that I envy your position: all those much better books and authors you’ve yet to discover. Enjoy!

  11. Ellie said:

    Hi, I have just finished this book and am most disappointed. The blurb on the back said ‘Once you have read it , tell your friends. But don’t reveal the ending. The magic is in how it unfolds.” What’s to reveal?? I was left feeling flat and uninspired. I guess I must have missed something or I am just too practical for airy-fairy endings. Yes it was nice that the little native children were playing with this ‘never before seen’ little skinny white kid but the fact remained that Little Bee was being arrested and would probably be executed – or do I presume too much? I found the story quite touching in places, quite confronting in others, never “hilarious” and ultimately a let down. I guess it was too “realistic” for me (no happy ending) – I was looking for fiction or I would have read a non-fiction account of these types of harrowing stories – which I am sure there are many. I was left high and dry and thinking “but what actually happened to Little Bee?”.

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