The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

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The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Little Bee lives the Asylum Detention Centre full of hope for her new life in England. She is going to meet up with the only people she knows in this country. When she calls to say she is coming, the welcome is not entirely what she'd hoped. The lives of two women become inextricably linked by one chance meeting in the worst of all possible circumstances.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340963425

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Having launched my one-woman campaign against blurb writers who tell you so much, it's hardly worth reading the book, I suppose I was due a come-uppance. Chris Cleave and the good people at Sceptre have taken me at my word. Not only does the blurb for The Other Hand tell you virtually nothing at all – it enjoins you to keep the faith and allow other readers to discover the book 'blind' as you have done.

How then am I to persuade you to read it?

Firstly, by seconding each of those quotes on the cover which simply say stunning.

And then by going on to tell you that this book not only kept me up late, it then got me up early to finish it. Owning that I weep quite easily, this book had me sobbing. More than once.

The blurb says: it is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific. Maybe my sense of humour needs some adjustment these days. Yes there are light-hearted moments – moments of farce and misunderstanding, moments of foreign misinterpretation, joyful renditions of language manipulation, the delights of the inescapable logic of a four-year-old superhero. None of them make it extremely funny. They raise a smile and lighten the tension. They make it plausible.

Which makes the horror all the more horrific. And the real horror is not what happened on that African beach, it is what happened afterwards, what happened (happens) a long way from Africa.

I'm going to break the injunction just a little, because there is another comment in the blurb that I disagree with. The author/publisher reason for keeping so quiet about the storyline is that the magic is in how it unfolds. That is only part of the magic. The remainder is Cleave's astonishing ability to take two totally distinct voices of characters whose lives are an entire universe apart and switch effortlessly between the two, whilst maintaining cohesion and (somehow) an overall tone to hold the tale together.

The Other Hand is the story of how two worlds collide.

Little Bee has spent the last two years of her childhood in an immigrant detention centre. She has used her time well, so that when she is released, aged just sixteen, she has (if nothing else) a profound grasp of the Queen's English. Sadly, she'll find those of us brought up here, don't.

Sarah is the well-educated, Surrey-born, editor of a magazine she created to be edgy, destined to 'lure them in with sex, then hit them with real issues'. Her husband is a Times columnist. She has it all, and more. Her biggest issue at the beginning of 2007 is her son's refusal to ever remove his Batman costume. Then her husband dies.

These events are not unrelated. Two of the few possession Bee has when she leaves detention is a driving licence that is not hers and a business card, with a telephone number.

The Other Hand is a book about freedom. It is about grief, and the lack of it. It is about principles and our inability to live up to them. It is about the choices we all make and why we make them and how difficult a thing forgiveness actually is. It is a book about fidelity and love and survival and what we might or might not do, when those things conflict. Perhaps ultimately it is about how we see ourselves.

Cleave has complete mastery over the written word. His pace is excellent. His ability to think and speak like a woman is so absolute I had to look him up just to check. In doing so, I discovered he knows whereof he speaks. He is a fully-fledged nappy-changing parent; he was brought up in West Africa and just happened to spend part of one working holiday in Oxfordshire in what was then called an Asylum Detention Centre. The experiences echo through the novel, through the bright colours that have to be clung to however dark the world becomes and through the darkness that descends when you know enough and think enough about it. Cleave clearly has thought about the issues raised in The Other Hand and insists that we think about them too.

Whether you choose to think more deeply or not, I can guarantee that you will be affected by this book and urge you to read it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For more harsh realities from the dark continent, try Blood River by Tim Butcher – but as Little Bee says we shouldn't ever only see the tragedy, take in the lighter sides of Africa via McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency stories, or Robyn Scott's memoir Twenty Chickens for a Saddle.

Booklists.jpg The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

Booklists.jpg The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is in the Top Ten Beach Reads For Girls.

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Buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Other Hand by Chris Cleave at


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