Monday, March 16, 2009

Chris Cleave and Little Bee

Not a full review but a shout-out for Chris Cleave's fine novel The Other Hand (also published under the title Little Bee). Things didn't look very promising when the book first came in – it was accompanied by the sort of publicity material that can give any reviewer the shudders: a candid Editor's Note that compared it to Cloud Atlas and Schindler's Ark and said “as publishers, naturally we only publish books we love but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps”; a back-jacket that avoided getting into plot details because “this is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it ...the magic is in how it unfolds”; and a cutesy illustrated introduction by the author depicting his two children dressed as superheroes, telling the readers things like “The book is funny and beautiful but also horrific. There is no way dad will let me read this book until I'm older!”

I don't know if The Other Hand lives up to that level of hype (and that probably isn't relevant anyway), but I enjoyed and admired it a good deal. It combines lightness of touch (the narrative is quick-paced, conversational, even darkly funny) with seriousness of purpose – provocative observations about how people live in different parts of the world and what can happen when those lives collide, the attempt to reach for personal dignity in the worst situations, and whether it's possible to achieve true empathy for another person. But most importantly, it does this without drowning the reader in clichés or making self-conscious efforts to extract sympathy.

The story is told by two women who take turns narrating chapters – a Nigerian girl who calls herself Little Bee and a British magazine editor named Sarah – and these are very believable voices (it's achievement enough for a male author to create a single well-rounded female narrator, but what Cleave does here really is creditable). We learn early on that the connection between these women, whose paths might otherwise never have crossed, is that they met in horrific circumstances on a Nigerian beach years earlier. The book takes its time to disclose the specifics of that incident and its aftermath, but the payoff is worth it, and thankfully the non-chronological structure doesn't feel contrived.

Little Bee, who has spent two years in a detention home because she is an illegal alien in Britain, is the book's emotional centre and one of the most memorable characters I've encountered in fiction recently, as she negotiates the business of living in a new country, speaking the "Queen's English" the way British people speak it, trying to work out how she would explain this place to the folks back home. Her narrative, mostly addressed to the first-world reader, is often mesmerising: there's a wide-eyed sense of wonder but also a hard-won, unforced wisdom about the workings of the world. The deep sadness and fear inside her only occasionally rise to the surface as the definition of the "bad men" who are coming for her gradually broadens to include not just the hunters back home (who want to kill her because of a massacre she witnessed) but also the people in this "civilised" country who want her deported. There is whimsical humour - and the true survivor's lust for life - even in the passages where she describes working out ways of killing herself whenever she enters a new place, in case greater horrors lie in wait.
One day the detention officers gave me a copy of a book called Life in the United Kingdom. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats. I began to understand how your country worked...

I knew they planned to deport me so I started to imagine killing myself back home in Nigeria. It was just like killing myself in the detention centre but the scenery was nicer. This was a small and unexpected happiness. In forests, in quiet villages, on the sides of mountains, I took my life again and again. In the most beautiful places I secretly lingered over the act. Once, in a deep and hot jungle that smelled of wet moss and the excrement of monkeys, I took nearly one whole day to chop down trees and build a tall tower to hang myself from by the neck. I had a machete. I imagined the sticky sap on my hands and the sweet honey smell of it, the good tired feeling in my arms from the chopping, and the screeches of the monkeys who were angry when they cut my trees down...It was a big day’s work for a small girl. I was proud.
For more of Little Bee's voice, here's the first chapter of the book from Chris Cleave's official website. And here's a Q&A with the author, though it's probably best read after you've read the novel.


  1. I read Incendiary a couple of years back, and thought it was really well written, even if a bit gimmicky. I remember some reviewers at that time thinking it a bit tasteless, but the first person narrative voice was quite extraordinary. I look forward to reading this

  2. Will you be shouting out louder about this book or does it end at 'fine'?

    I'm yet to read the book myself but it has come very highly recommended by a friend (whose judgement I trust)who is already rather upset that not many people might even discover this book. In fact he is right now very thrilled that you have reviewed it (even if not fully).

    What can I say, our man loves it when good books make it to best-sellers list (the trend that is sadly dwindling).

  3. Gauri: I'd like to read Incendiary. I wonder if the allegations of tastelessness had anything to do with the book unfortunately releasing on the same day as the underground attacks in London.

    Will you be shouting out louder about this book or does it end at 'fine'?

    Tuft: I didn't realise this was a one-word post! Thought I wrote a lot more about the book than just "fine". A longer (and structured) review will happen only if someone I write for asks me to do one.

  4. Yes..the timing of that book was really unfortunate. But I still recommend it for the sheer force of the narrator's voice. There are a lot of people who complain about men writing about/as women and vice versa but Cleave seems to fit into his character's head very easily

  5. ah yes - i enjoyed it too.. and like you - was rather put off by the publicity material at first. am glad i went ahead with it anyway....