Posted by: Corri van de Stege | November 12, 2009

Chris Cleave – The Other Hand

Chris Cleave The Other HandChris Cleave’s The Other Hand  was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award and follows on from his earlier first novel Incendiary, which I have not read but will.  Incendiary was published just at the time of the July 07 attacks in London and is about an al-Qa’ida suicide attack. 

The Other Hand is about two women, one an English editor and the other a girl refugee from Nigeria.  Their stories alternate and slowly the reason for their interaction unravels.  The book is both funny and desperately tragic, it is written in a way that you don’t stop to think about it but simply accept that this is how it is: life in all its cruelty and brightness, always two sides to one story.  Sarah is the editor who seemingly has it all and has nothing, she muddles through.  Little Bee is the girl who loses everything and yet, in her naivety and understanding seems at times the wiser of the two, brought about by horrors lived through in Nigeria.

The book points at the cynicism of the English immigration rules and procedures, its self righteous callousness.  The opening sentence is a memorable one:

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.

It sums up the indifference with which refugees are treated: better to be a coin and being able to slip through borders and from one place to another, unnoticed, valued, than to be a refugee when borders are closed and you are treated with suspicion. 

Little Bee accidentally escapes from the immigration centre, due to a mix up created by one of the girls and gets in touch with Andrew O’Rourke.  She met with Andrew and his wife Sarah on a beach in Nigeria and the consequences are chilling and reverberate to this new meeting she is trying to set up.  Andrew is depressed and Sarah has an affair, their son Charlie is a batman fan.

The story is narrated alternately by Little Bee and Sarah, each giving her own perspective, each needing the other.  It’s about how each of them remembers what happened and how each struggles now to cope with the consequences.   It’s chilling, haunting and as I said before, extremely funny in places because of its constant reality check; neither Little Bee nor Sarah are heroes , nor does Cleave judge them for what they are. 

The writing is excellent and this is another book that I think everyone should read, for its honesty and realism – neither Little Bee nor Sarah are perfect, there is no condemnation or cynicism about either of them.  They are two people caught up in a melodrama that is far beyond what they bargained for.  Go and read it, if you have not read it yet.  I’m going to get Incendiary.





  1. Great review.

    And check your bookshelves for Incendiary. I have a hunch it might be there already.

  2. You are so right…. oh my. 🙂

  3. Had a chuckle there. (I won’t tease you about a senior moment since I have them all the time. Last week I locked keys in car and then left my cellphone in the car of the kind couple who helped me out!) But will put this on To-be-ordered list right now. Thanks.

  4. Pete – so I don’t have to worry yet????

    • Well I hope not 😉

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