The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is a book that should come with a warning – ‘Beware, you may be shocked’, because there are some horrific scenes contained within, but there should also be a codicil that says it contains several funny and heart-warming moments as well. This second novel from author Chris Cleave is moving and challenging. It tells the story of Little Bee, a young Nigerian girl whom we meet when she has just been released from a British Immigration detention centre, and Sarah, an ambitious magazine editor married to Andrew and mother to four year old Charlie. We hear the story from different viewpoints, as Cleave alternates the narrative voice between the two women, and as he says himself ‘This is a story of two worlds, the developed and the developing’.

Sarah and Andrew have gone on holiday to Nigeria to try and repair their troubled marriage. The couple inadvertently come across Little Bee and her sister on the beach in front of the hotel, and soon find themselves surrounded by a group of mercenaries intent on killing the girls. Sarah and Andrew become involved in a tense situation that involves one of them making a great sacrifice.

The story moves back to England, where Sarah is now trying to cope with Andrew’s suicide, her guilt at having had an affair, and Charlie who lives life in a Batman costume that he refuses to take off.  Little Bee suddenly appears on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and thereafter Sarah is able to find the answers to what happened after that fateful day on the beach.  Ultimately, and ironically, it is the displaced refugee  who ends up helping Sarah and Charlie, rather than the other way around, and the emotional events that unfold during her stay with them changes their lives forever. However, even though the friendship between the two women is tested to the end degree, the moral of the story is that humanity can prevail above everything.

The novel, which incidentally was titled ‘Little Bee’ in the USA and Canada, was used as a vehicle by Cleave, a journalist and one time columnist for The Guardian, to expose the treatment of asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK. Interestingly it is written by Cleave from a woman’s perspective, which is not always an easy task for a male novelist, and he seems to carry it off more convincingly as Little Bee than he does as Sarah, for whom you might find little empathy.  The plot structure was interesting as it seemed to move forward to take us back to events in the past, although you might find the ending to be contrived and not entirely credible. Despite this, The Other Hand is a book that should definitely be on your reading list!

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