Sunday, 14 June 2009

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

I'm struggling to review this book. But only because I'm not sure exactly how much of the story I should reveal. The publishers don't want to tell us very much, the blurb only saying:

We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a very special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you will need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:

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....

Hmmm, I'm not sure that would have been enough for me to buy it. And that's a shame because It's a fantastic book. I read it because of a personal recommendation from a close friend, but I just think I may have missed this if I'd seen it in a shop. So I'm going to tell you a bit, but I'll try not to reveal too much, because I do agree with the publisher when they say

Once you have read it you will 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.

The two women concerned meet on a beach in Nigeria. One is Nigerian and one is English. When they meet again they are in England, and their lives are seriously affected by events on that beach. The Nigerian girl comes to England as a refugee, and during the time they spend together they both learn a lot about themselves and their lives. Although want to say so much more I won't because I do feel I would be giving too much away if I did.

This book addresses some pretty heavyweight issues, both political with the situations refugees find themselves in, and personal with the reactions of the women to the events. Its tough to read in places, and the scene on the beach is horrific. The tension in this scene is built up throughout the first half of the story, so when we do actually get to read about it, its almost unbearable. I wanted to put it down, but couldn't.

However despite the mostly harrowing subject matter, there are some moments of lightness thrown in. Little Bee (the Nigerian girl) spends a lot of time talking about how she would explain Britain and its customs to the girls back home. Some of her narrations made me smile, although I did almost feel guilty for smiling, given the subject matter of the following quote;

One day the detention officers gave us all a copy of a book called Life in The United Kingdom. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats.

I do hope this makes sense. It's more a collection of thoughts than a proper review, but however much I think the publishers could have said a bit more on the cover, I don't want to give the story away. It's a fantastic book, but it did leave me feeling angry, guilty and more than a little uncomfortable. And the scene on the beach, which I won't spoil, left me asking myself what would I do. Could I do it?


FleurFisher said...

Yes it does make sense! I wouldn't have picked up the book on the basis of the cover blurb - could have been romantic fiction/family saga -but I had seen a number of positive comments from people whose opinions I respect it and so when I saw a copy in the Oxfam shop last Friday I picked it up. I'm pleased to see another positive report and hopefully I'll get to it soon.

farmlanebooks said...

I really want to read this one. I'm pleased I finally know a bit more about it now, although the blurb did have me interested anyway!

I hope I can find a copy in the library soon.