We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this:
This is the story of two women.
Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice.
Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there…
Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.
So, having been told nothing by the people trying to sell me the book, I’m now faced with how to refer to it in a review. And, to get this straight, I’m not trying to sell you anything with my reviews. I hope you’d be inspired to read something I enjoyed especially if you’d never have picked it up without reading about it here, I’d love to hear your thoughts, but whether you run out and read or recommend any of these novels is not really my concern.
When I bought Cleave’s book, in the grips of that holiday ennui that inevitably sets in a couple of days before you have to go back to the “real” world, I thought that blurb was intriguing. I was curious and I was struck by the thought that the publisher’s confidence must mean something. So I grabbed it and read it in the course of a couple of days.
My gut instinct is that the publisher was somewhat too confident. The novel is a good one. It’s about two women, as we already know. One is a refugee released from a detention centre just outside of London. One is a magazine editor. They are brought together by a combination of arrogance, desperation and the thrust of history, caught up in the wake civil war, terror and politics leaves behind. It is narrated by both women, the refugee known as Little Bee and the editor Sarah O’Rourke.
It is a captivating story, in turns political and just plain heartbreaking. Little Bee is one of the most interesting and engaging narrators I’ve read. Her turn of phrase is beautiful, her humour, her need to keep going. She is kept in detention where she does all she can to remove traces of womanhood from her appearance. She cuts her hair short, straps her breasts down with bandages, wears steel cap boots and loose clothing. In the immigration centre every story is a sad one. Every story starts with “the men came and they…” and ends with “and then they put me in here”. After she leaves and re-enters the real world Little Bee ensures she knows how she would kill herself, in any situation, in case the men come again.
Me, I was a woman under white fluorescent strip lights, in an underground room in an immigration detention centre forty miles east of London. There were no seasons there. It was cold, cold, cold, and I did not have anyone to smile at. Those cold years are frozen inside me. The African girl they locked up in the immigration detention centre, poor child, she never really escaped. In my soul she is still locked up in there, forever, under the fluorescent lights, curled up on the green linoleum floor with her knees tucked up under her chin. And this woman they released form the immigration detention centre, this creature that I am, she is a new breed of human. There is nothing natural about me. I was born – no, I was reborn – in captivity. I learned my language from your newspapers, my clothes are your cast offs, and it is your pound that makes my pockets ache with its absence. Imagine a young woman cut out from a smiling Save the Children magazine advertisement, who dresses herself in threadbare pink clothes from the recycling bin in your local supermarket car park and speaks English like the leader column of The Times, if you please. I would cross the street to avoid me. Truly, this is the one thing that people from your country and people from my country agree on. They say, That refugee girl is not one of us. That girl does not belong.
One of my favourite things about this novel was that Little Bee was a three dimensional character. She wasn’t a cardboard cut out, propped up to make a political point. She’s dry, funny and she really doesn’t want harm to come to the people who are helping her. The system, the world, she is living is brutal, officious and totally unfair. Her desperation puts Sarah’s difficulties, which aren’t exactly insignificant, into context. And the prose Cleave uses to write her has its own rhythm, a weave and weft that is totally her own. Sarah’s narration reads more like a story in a train station glossy at times. Their narration is clearly intended to be each other’s light and shade.
Unfortunately I found Sarah O’Rourke to be a fairly unlikeable character. I haven’t worked at a magazine, but her work and attitude to it felt completely unbelievable. She dresses for deadline days, apparently. I amost retched. Sarah sustains her own damage from her involvement with Little Bee, permanent and increasingly devastating. Cleave treats it deftly and makes it hugely relatable. I also found myself caring a great deal about her four year old son Charlie. I’m surprised to say that a small boy who refuses to take off his Batman costume in case Baddies come was a genius device in the context of the story. I guess Sarah was intended to read as slightly superficial to give us a point of reference to our own world. And after seeing not enough divergence between the voices of the characters in All That I Am I do understand that that was necessary. Thing is, I know my world, I don’t need it caricatured quite that much for context.
So, in the end the blurb that had me so intrigued in the book shop in Ubud seems like an uninspired, and fairly arrogant, sales pitch now. I wish the story had been told by Little Bee in entirety, or close to. I loved the slow reveal with her story. The way the horror of her world seemed to travel with her, in small portable servings, with her at the eye of the storm unable to change anything and unable to look away. Ultimately, I admired Cleave’s confidence to drive a story like this so unflinchingly and without overlabouring the politics, I just wished for a slightly smaller cringe factor.
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: three and a half stars. (In the US it is called Little Bee.)
Read it if: you’re not squeamish, if you think asylum seekers should be imprisoned, if your world view is restricted to the suburb you live in.