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