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Tragedy behind UK 'dirty secret'

06 July 2012

Sarah Meyrick on The Other Hand by Chris Cleave


WHEN The Other Hand was first published in hardback in 2008, it sold only 3000 copies. Eighteen months later - despite little marketing - it had shot up the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller lists, and at least 300,000 paperback copies had flown off the shelves. It is currently being made into a film starring Nicole Kidman.

Readers, it seemed, couldn't get enough of the novel, and were happy to ignore the occasionally waspish critics, and to spread the word among friends. The blurb on my copy says almost nothing about the plot; indeed, it coyly entreats the reader not to spoil it for others by giving too much away.

But, essentially, it is about the clash of two worlds. Sarah, the arche-typal head-girl from Surrey, and Little Bee, a Nigerian teenager, meet in frightening circumstances on a beach in Africa. After a terrifying and bloody incident that leaves each scarred for life, they go their separate ways, little imagining that they will meet again. Only two years later, they do so, in London, in circumstances that are differently tragic.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between the two women's perspectives. By the time they meet in London, Little Bee is an asylum-seeker. She has lived for two years in a detention centre in Essex, struggling to get to grips with the ways of the British immigration system.

The author, Chris Cleave (right), says that the book was inspired by his own brief experience as a student working in the canteen at Campsfield House in Oxfordshire - an institution that he describes as "a prison full of people who haven't committed a crime".

"I'd been living within ten miles of the place for three years, and didn't even know it existed," he has written. "The conditions in there were very distressing. I got talking with asylum-seekers who'd been through hell, and were likely to be sent back to hell. Some of them were beautiful characters, and it was deeply upsetting to see how we were treating them.

"When we imprison the innocent, we make them ill, and when we deport them, it is often a death sentence. I knew I had to write about it, because it is such a dirty secret. And I knew I had to show the unexpected humour of these refugees wherever I could, and to make the book an enjoyable and compelling read - because otherwise people's eyes would glaze over."

The answer, he found, was to personalise the human tragedy behind that "dirty secret". In Little Bee, he sets out to create a determined and engaging character with a particular story. She emerges as a survivor, who carefully observes what is going on around her, and deliberately adapts to her environment in order to stay alive.

Having escaped from her own country, she makes her way to the UK, and learns the Queen's English to give herself the best chance. She makes an emotional appeal to Sarah's good nature, based on their traumatic shared history, but equally, she has no qualms about threatening blackmail to ensure that another character doesn't turn her in to the police.

Sarah, meanwhile, finds her moral certainties turned upside down. When she and her husband Andrew are faced with violence on the beach, the contrasting choices each makes set off a terrible chain of events, and delivers a catastrophic blow to their relationship. While Sarah has always assumed that she knows how to behave, it soon becomes apparent that life is rarely simple, and morality can be murky territory.

She assumes, naïvely, that Little Bee's story - and her own good word - will be enough to satisfy the immigration authorities of the justice of her case, and is appalled by what she encounters in the underworld of the asylum-seeker.

If this focus on grim political concerns and tragic events suggests a heavy read, that would be a mistaken impression. While the issues are certainly serious, Cleave doesn't hector the reader; there is a great deal of warmth and entertainment in the novel. When Little Bee first leaves the detention centre, she does so in the company of a Jamaican woman and two others, in scenes ripe with humour.

Little Bee's observations of British life, and how she would describe what she sees around her to the girls back home in her village (who serve as an off-stage Greek chorus), are wry and pointed. And, throughout the book, we encounter Charlie, Sarah's four-year-old son, who will answer only to the name of Batman, and insists on wearing a bat-suit, day and night. Some readers may find him irritating, but his neat division of the world into "goodies" and "baddies" also serves to point up the moral ambiguities.

The end of the book is ambiguous - deliberately, one suspects. But it is a gripping and unusual story, with a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even if it occasionally seems contrived. Above all, it is a novel that opens your eyes to a world that it would be much more comfortable to ignore.

Sarah Meyrick is the director of communications for the diocese of Oxford.
The Other Hand is published by Sceptre/Hodder at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10 use code CT187); 978-0-340-96342-5.

"Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe haven for people fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict." How is this sentence, which is the book's epigraph, supported or contradicted by the stories told in it?

"Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl." What contrasts between Britain and Africa underlie Little Bee's reflections on her world?

The author of The Other Hand is male, yet he chooses to write in the voice of two females. How convincingly does he make his characters speak?

"Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive." How is Little Bee able to remain so positive, in spite of her experiences?

In an interview, Chris Cleave said that The Other Hand "is a novel about where our individuality lies - which layers of identity are us, and which are mere camouflage". How does he portray this in his book's characters?

Why was it so important for Sarah to try to save Little Bee?

Did the end of the novel leave you hopeful?

How does the author use humour as a vehicle for conveying his message?

Author notes
Michael Arditti was born in Cheshire and educated at Rydal School, North Wales, before reading English at Jesus College, Cambridge. After university, he worked for a small London theatre, where he directed a number of plays. After a period of illness, he started writing his own plays, including four that were broadcast on Radio 4. He also worked as theatre critic for a number of national newspapers. His first novel, The Celibate, was published in 1993. Six more have followed. He has also published some short stories, and he reviews books for newspapers.

Book notes
A sceptical film-director making a documentary about Lourdes, and a woman seeking a miracle for her brain-damaged husband meet on pilgrimage. Vincent and Gillian become en-tangled in a brief affair, which leaves them both changed. The week's events are described by both of them, providing a fascinating juxtaposition of interpretations of their experiences.The novel probes accepted notions of sickness and health, duty and sacrifice, and the workings of grace.

Books for the next two months:
September: Take This Bread by Sara Miles
October: In the Midst of Life by Jennifer Worth




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