The Other Hand is an unusual book. It asks you to keep a secret before you even read the first page.
Sometimes, blurbs can be too revealing. Here, all we know is there are two women, a past choice and its future consequences. The joy is in the discovery.
Chris Cleave definitely knows how to ration out his discoveries. The plot is paced quickly, yet nothing is revealed too soon. The book’s cover, for example, becomes relevant only at the very end.
The Other Hand is a mesmerising exploration of integration, alienation and sacrifice. Its writing style is clear, simple, yet inventive. The opening drops you straight into the main character’s mind, as Little Bee’s quirky perception of the world invites you to experience the life of a pound coin. The normal object we have clinking in our coat pockets is transformed by her imagination and whisks you into the fast flow of an engrossing narrative.
Throughout the novel, Little Bee’s unfiltered take on Western life, delivered in impeccable Queen’s English, will make you view your surroundings with a new sense of possibility. But it will also open your eyes to the inherent blindness of our culture.
Cleave weaves a brilliant balance between two opposite societies – the jungle and suburbia. He wraps you easily in the bubble of developed life and just as easily pops it. All issues raised are given unique weight without belittling the concerns of any character. Difficult emotions are dissected with care.
And the characters are complex. Everyone has secrets; carrying their imperfections behind every word and action. Cleave swaps between their past and present with fluid ease, revealing just enough to leave you impatient for more. As the truth unravels the consequences of a chance meeting and a single choice reverberate through all involved. You may need to read it a second time to solve the dilemma of wanting to race through the plot yet savour the language.
There are a few flaws, but nothing to deter enjoyment of the book as a whole. It explores international responsibilities and human rights with frank and unflinching prose. It deals with hard consequences and the tenuous hope of survival that can lead a person to any lengths.
However, the ending feels slightly contrived. The author knew the message he wished to convey and forced an appropriate climax. It seems a little at odds with the lessons learned by the characters throughout the story. Yet it could equally be a valid warning against British naivety and repeated folly.
There is a very telling Nigerian proverb after the acknowledgements, which sums up the vast differences between the two cultures. How the one is escapist and the other has no escape:
If your face is swollen from the beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man.
You will realise that the problems raised in The Other Hand are out of our hands to change – yet you may also be inspired to try.