Friday, October 03, 2008

Review: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

So Sceptre ask me if I'd like this book. Quick check of the blurb on their website, and I'm envisaging writing a piece on publishing marketing strategy:
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.
Hm, I'm thinking. Clever. Maybe. Maybe good: the latest - and perhaps inevitable - twist in the Cult of Overhype: a return to the concept of the book inside the cover, the book as an intellectual and emotional adventure rather than a box-checked lifestyle commodity. Or maybe just a cynical use of mystique.

The book arrives. No author photo, no author bio. Just a note from Senior Editor Suzie Doore passionately recommending the novel.

I start reading.

People, I don't want to write a slick clever review about marketing, or indeed literary technique. I want to tell you that when I finished this book (I was sitting on the floor leaning on the sofa) I turned around and put my head on my arms and I sobbed.

It's the story that so affected me, and although they ask us not to reveal it, the publishers are right that it's the story you want to tell when you've read the book.

It's a brilliant achievement since it's a story which on the whole in Britain we don't want to know, indeed don't want to believe, a fact which indeed motors the utterly engrossing edge-of-the-chair plot of this novel. And of course, after all, this is down to Chris Cleave's literary skill.

This story we don't want to know, we shut it up inside immigration detention centres, we fly it out again quick. But Chris Cleave, via an amazing and witty literary ventriloquism, monumental empathy and huge skill in plot manipulation, brings together the seemingly disparate worlds of two female narrators, Little Bee, escaped from certain death in a Nigerian oil war, and Sarah, a London-based working mother and lifestyle magazine editor, and in so doing illustrates to devastating effect our innocent complicity in political horrors we think of as remote.

Read it, is all. I'm just so glad I was given the chance to do so.

And if you want afterwards to read some real-life stories of women escaped from cruelty in other countries, I recommend Fragments from the Dark (to which I had the privilege of being asked to contribute).
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