Browsing through new books at my favourite book store, I feel somewhat ambivalent about the marketing blurbs on the back covers. I want to know what the book is about, but the plot synopses often give away too much of the story. So, when I read the back of The Other Hand (American title: Little Bee) by Chris Cleave, I was intrigued: “We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it … You'll 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.” And that’s absolutely right! It makes it a bit difficult to review, though.
The Other Hand is about Little Bee, a Nigerian girl of sixteen, who fled from the turmoil of her home to the United Kingdom only to get locked up in an immigration detention centre for two years. She is released by mistake and, without a penny in her pocket, makes it to the only people she knows in the UK: Andrew and Sarah, a middle class couple whom she had met two years before, by chance in Nigeria.
The story is told from the perspectives of the two women, which works very well. Little Bee is a sharp observer with an incredibly dry humour. Despite her past, she refuses to give up on life and you can't help but chuckle at her laconic descriptions, even though the chuckle freezes from time to time when you realise what it is you've just read. Sarah is struggling with the problems of her private life, yet she feels a moral obligation towards the girl, and her perspective provides the context of the story. As one of Sarah's colleagues points out, stories about the hardship of refugees is not what people like to read. Thanks to Cleave's marvellous narration, however, there is no reason to be put off by the heavy subject matter!
Cleave writes about big issues like immigration but is careful not to point any fingers. The characters are convincing and you can't help but contemplate how you would react in their situation, as there are no easy answers.
Please read this book, so that we can talk about it!
The first chapter is available at www.chriscleave.com. I'd advise you, though, to place an order at your favourite book store beforehand. Once you’re captured by the story, you won't want to wait days until you can read on and discover how it unfolds.