the observer Sun 15 February 2009
In a bid to salvage their marriage, the O'Rourkes take a trip to Nigeria. But a horrifying incident on a beach forces them to make a life-or-death decision with momentous consequences. In alternate chapters, 16-year-old asylum seeker Little Bee and magazine editor Sarah O'Rourke recount their versions of events. It is the authenticity of their voices that carries the story, as slowly their disparate lives - one fleeing the horrors of war, the other battling the tribulations of domestic life - bind to a common human thread. Exquisitely balanced between terrible sadness and brilliant humour, Chris Cleave broaches the dilemma of compassion versus self-preservation and asks whether safety must be sacrificed in the name of freedom.
the guardian Fri 08 August 2008
A Frankenstein-like irony attends writers and books overtaken by the events they describe. In 1805, in the Prussian town of Jena, the philosopher Hegel was racing to finish The Phenomenology of Spirit with a draconian publishing contract hanging over his head. The Spirit hypothesised by Hegel was exemplified by Napoleon - a "world soul" whose armies were sweeping across Europe. But the emperor's arrival with his army, his victory at the battle of Jena and his occupation of the university town were more "world" than the philosopher needed. He promptly decamped to Bamberg to edit a small newspaper, and The Phenomenology was published (late) to minimal applause.
Hegel's example might have warned Chris Cleave what can happen to books when their stories escape the covers. In late June 2005, I reviewed Cleave's first novel, Incendiary, which took the form of a book-length "letter" from a working-class woman (brilliantly ventriloquised by Cleave) to Osama bin Laden after the suicide bombing of Arsenal football stadium, in which her husband and son have perished. The book's official publication date was July 7. That, of course, was the date chosen by a group of Islamic suicide bombers to blow up three tube trains and a bus in London, killing more than 50 people.
The 7/7 attacks dwarfed the mere publication of a book. At the end of the year, the publisher, which had hoped with justification for great things, cited the coincidence as the cause of the book's relative lack of success. Incendiary got lost in the smoke that billowed prophetically from its pages: too much "world". After that bruising encounter with the news, one might have expected Cleave to draw in his horns, shy away from the engagé or otherwise take the road to Bamberg. One would be wrong.
The Other Hand is an ambitious and fearless gallop from the jungles of Africa via a shocking encounter on a Nigerian beach to the media offices of London and domesticity in leafy suburbia. Part-thriller, part-multicultural Aga saga, the book enmeshes its characters in the issues of immigration, globalisation, political violence and personal accountability. Lists of themes are often review-speak for "worthy but dull", but not in this case. Cleave immerses the reader in the worlds of his characters with an unshakable confidence that we will find them as gripping and vital as he does. Mostly, that confidence is justified.
The book begins in an immigration detention centre where Little Bee, a 16-year-old Ibo girl from Nigeria, has spent the last two years honing skills that point back to horrific past events and forward to a hoped-for future. Making herself look unattractive to men is the first of several mysterious threads that Cleave slowly winds in. Learning the Queen's English (from the quality broadsheets only, she specifies) has a more obvious relevance. "Excuse me for learning your language properly. I am here to tell you a real story. I did not come here to talk to you about the bright African colours."
The colours, when they come - on a beach in Nigeria - are certainly not bright. The route back to them begins with Little Bee's inadvertent escape from the centre with three women, variously cheerful, bewildered and suicidal, and a phone call to a columnist and journalist, Andrew O'Rourke. Little Bee encountered Andrew and his wife Sarah in Nigeria. Now he is dismayed to hear from her.
From this small mystery, the rest of Little Bee's story begins to unfold. Something has happened that has not only left its mark on a teenage Ibo girl but has shaken the O'Rourke family to its foundations. Ensconced in Kingston-upon-Thames, Andrew suffers from depression. Sarah, who edits a women's magazine called Nixie, pursues an unhappy affair. Their young son Charlie dresses and lives as Batman. Their story is narrated by Sarah - necessarily so, because in the time between Little Bee's telephone call and her arrival in Kingston, Andrew commits suicide.
"It started on the day we first met Little Bee, on a lonely beach in Nigeria. The only souvenir I have of that first meeting is an absence where the middle finger of my left hand used to be. The amputation is quite clean. In place of my finger is a stump, a phantom digit that used to be responsible for the E, D and C keys on my laptop."
The "it" is teasingly unspecified, and the term "amputation" is not quite honest, as it turns out, but Cleave's unobtrusive skill in sentences like that allows the world of the machete to be glimpsed through the world of the laptop. Most of the action has already happened when Little Bee and Sarah reunite. Through their recollections, an African past surfaces slowly in an English present. Cleave doles out clues and hints. Then, within a perfectly paced flashback, he has Little Bee tell how she first met the O'Rourkes in Nigeria, and what happened on the beach.
A special place in hell is reserved for the taxi-drivers who shout the name of the murderer outside Les Misérables to under-tipping passengers. Right next door to them sit the reviewers who give away the surprises in books. Cleave showed in Incendiary that he was equal to the challenges of a large-scale violent setpiece scene. This one is more compressed, more intense and more chilling. I never thought I would read the phrase "rang like a bell" with anything but a yawn. But I shuddered.
The book's kernel of violence throws up a stark choice and drives a wedge between Sarah and Andrew O'Rourke. The different choices each makes on the beach together drive the action and raise a larger question. Whose experience should we accept as authentic? Is The Other Hand a book about what happens in Africa (to Little Bee), or what people in Kingston-upon-Thames (such as Sarah) think about what happens in Africa?
Like the unnamed heroine of Incendiary, Sarah O'Rourke is a far from perfect heroine: a semi-neglectful mother and unfaithful wife (the trip to Nigeria was an ill-conceived marriage-saving exercise). Cleave has some fun at her expense. Here she recalls getting ready to go to work the last time she saw her husband alive. "I always dressed up for deadline days. Heels, skirt, smart green jacket. Magazine publishing has its rhythms, and if the editor won't dance to them, she can't expect her staff to. I don't float feature ideas in Fendi heels, and I don't close an issue in Pumas."
Magazine publishing, middle-aged affairs, nurseries and funerals all come in for this kind of satirical close observation. But Cleave does not mock Sarah (and life in Kingston-upon-Thames) any more than he does Little Bee and her experiences in Nigeria. Life in England may appear superficial compared to a life-and-death struggle for existence in the tropical forests east of the Niger. Little Bee, however, has voted with her feet. One can have too much authenticity. Too much world.
Cleave makes no judgment on these two existences and, more interestingly, he eschews the postmodern back-pedal into irony. The Other Hand is emphatically not ironic. For all the characters' faults, none of them is presented as inauthentic or standing for something that we are intended to disbelieve. There are no straw targets. Nothing in the novel is included only to be derided. As a consequence, the story of Little Bee, Sarah and Charlie/Batman becomes heated to the point of melodrama. A thoughtless act on Sarah's part delivers Little Bee into the clutches of immigration officials. To right that wrong, she pursues a course of action that is not quite credible; but by this stage, the tremendous momentum of the story carries the reader through.
There are no nods or winks to the reader. Cleave follows his story to a powerful and emotive end. If The Other Hand flirts with melodrama, that is a fault Cleave shares with Dickens, and for the same reason. He means it.
· Lawrence Norfolk's novels include In the Shape of a Boar (Weidenfeld)