Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)

--The blurb--
"We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:

It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.

The story starts there, but the book doesn't.

And it's what happens afterwards that is most important.

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds."

--The review--
Subtle titles and subversive blurbs are sure ways to draw readers in, and luckily for Chris Cleave, his book has both. The title is ambiguous and intriguing, while the blurb equally serves as an unusual hook to grab potential readers. However, these perceptions are perhaps purely British: The Other Hand was published as Little Bee in the US, putting the main character centre stage. Is this because the Americans don't do subtlety? Or is it a cleverer 'revival' strategy whereby publishers are trying to get names-as-titles back in fashion (though I somehow doubt it)?

In any case, Chris Cleave is certainly one to watch. The novel is essentially pro-immigration, but the characters (especially the principal character, Little Bee) are well-crafted, incisive, witty, intelligent, touching and humorous. They are also well-contrasted, successfully creating the effect of collision between two vastly separate worlds: Little Bee could not be more different from those who end up protecting her. The events of the novel, on one scale, seem slightly improbable, but one has a scary feeling that they are closer to the truth than many of us can ever know. Cleave's work drags readers out of their usual 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality and forces us to differently consider those around us, their backgrounds, and what they might be doing here. Whether this was Cleave's main aim, or whether he was not trying to be as didactic as that, is subsidiary. Even if he is pro-immigration, by the end of the novel we don't really care - our interest in and feeling for the characters is chiefly a human interest rather than a political or racial one.

Cleave also has the ever-rarer quality of being a contemporary writer who is able to write sublimely, both in terms of expression and style and in terms of grammar. Even many of the excellent young authors out there today, such as Marie Phillips (author of Gods Behaving Badly, which is possibly one of the most enjoyable books of the past couple of years), have been known to make appalling grammatical errors. My main fear when I see teachers and writers making such mistakes is that such errors will pass into the public consciousness to become correct, because people trust these people to be right - even when they are wrong. Cleave, thankfully, is not among this particular conglomerate, and is consequently able to shine above others, with his subversive and unusual humour and way of thinking only serving to draw the reader in further.

Other work by Chris Cleave
Incendiary (2005)

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