Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Other Hand Chris Cleave

Would you give a finger to save a stranger on a beach? Yes or No, answer now!

This is the dilemma that faces the O'Rourke's, on holiday in Nigeria in an effort to save their marriage. The person they are asked to save is Little Bee, one of the two narrator's of this book and a refugee from Nigeria's oil wars. Needless to say the O'Rourkes make different choices and it is these choices and their consequences that are played out in Chris Cleave's ambitious new novel.

The novel opens with Little Bee in a detention centre in Essex where she has spent the last two years having fled Nigeria in a cargo ship full of tea. It is here that she sharpens her survival skills, practicing and perfecting her Queen's English and hiding from the men in the detention centre by dressing badly and binding her breasts, her only indulgence painting her toenails red with a bottle of varnish she found in a charity box of clothes. The incident on the beach happened over two years ago but she has retained Andrew O'Rourke's Driving License and business card so that when she is released from the detention centre, as part of an administrative error without documents, it is Andrew she calls.

The O'Rourk's have spent the intervening years carrying on lives of desperation. Andrew, haunted by the choice he made, descends into depression whilst Sarah continues her life editing a women's lifestyle magazine, having an affair with Lawrence, a self deprecating Home Office official and entirely missing the signals Andrew is sending out. It is into this fraught and unhappy situation that Little Bee's telephone call lands, detonating and scattering their carefully constructed lives.

The novel explores issues around immigration, globalisation, political violence and personal accountability. Each character is presented with choices and is judged by the reader on those choices. Is Sarah as frivolous as she seems? How far is Little Bee prepared to go to remain in the UK? How much does Lawrence really mean to Sarah and what is he prepared to do to keep her?
This would be a great book group read.

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