Sunday, 11 November 2012

Books that Disappointed: The Other Hand (Chris Cleave)

I first spotted Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, published in paperback in 2009, in Waterstone’s, where it was included in their 3 for 2 offer. As I browsed through the book I came across, on the first page, a note to the ‘Dear Reader’ by one Suzie Doore, who introduced herself as Chris Cleave’s editor.

Doore was writing to inform ‘Dear Reader’ how ‘extraordinary’ The Other Hand was. The novel was ‘so special’ it gave Suzie Doore ‘goosebumps’, a phenomenon, she assured ‘Dear Reader’, she did not experience often. Doore put The Other Hand on par with Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Arc and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The Other Hand, Doore gushed, was an ‘amazing novel—horrifying but hilarious, tragic but uplifting, hugely entertaining and highly intelligent.’ This was high praise indeed. Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas (which I have reviewed on this blog in the past) are two of my very favourite novels, and if the editor of a publishing house was of the view that The Other Hand was as good, the novel was worth reading. I had never heard of Chris Cleave until then, but browsing further through The Other Hand, I discovered that he had written another novel, entitled Incendiary, which had won the Somerset Maugham award in 2006, and was described as ‘stunning’ by New York Times, ‘mesmerizing’ by Washington Post and ‘Pitch-perfect’ by The Daily Telegraph

That settled for me. I want to read novels that are mesmerizing, stunning and pitch-perfect; don't you? I bought the book and it went on my to-read list; but it wasn't until recently that I finally read it.

The Other Hand deals with a topical issue in Britain—asylum seekers. The novel tells the story of Little Bee, an asylum seeker—an illegal asylum seeker, I shall thank you to keep in mind—which has more twists in it than a winding road in the south of France, and more drama than in Gone With the Wind.

The novel opens with a young Nigerian woman, who goes by the name Little Bee, getting out of a detention centre in Britain, where she has spent almost two years after arriving in the country as a stowaway. How has she spent these two years? She has spent the years polishing her English. Little Bee has cunningly figured out that if she has to survive first in the detention centre and then (if she gets out) in England, she must learn to either sell her body or speak English like the natives. Not keen on the first option, the bright girl has learnt to speak perfect English by reading gossip magazines (one hopes not Heat!) that arrive at irregular intervals at the detention centre. Luck smiles unexpectedly on Little Bee when a Jamaican detainee, who (following Trotsky’s maxim that end justifies means) is not averse to using her feminine charms to entertain Home Office pen-pushers, manages to obtain an early, though not altogether halal, release for herself and some randomly chosen detainees from the detention centre, the Home-Office man following the strange logic that his misdemeanour would be less likely to arouse suspicion if he authorised the release of four detainees instead of just one. Little Bee and three other girls are given shelter by a farmer who is naïve or deluded or both to take pity on the girls, but Little Bee scarpers in the middle of the night, leaving her companions—one of whom has decided, after waiting for years to be released from the detention centre, that she does not want to live after all, and has hanged herself—behind. She has an address to go to in England. The address belongs to a journalist named Andrew O’Rourke, although, when she phones O’Rourke to give him the good news that he should expect her soon, O’Rourke’s reaction is that of a man who has made the late discovery that the reason his tea tasted funny was because there was arsenic in it. How does Little Bee know the British journalist in the first place? Let me explain: Andrew O’Rourke and his wife Sarah—who is the editor of a women’s rag, where she likes to tackle issues that matter such as the Iraq war and the asylum problems and not just the latest innovations in vibrators—were holidaying in Nigeria, in a particularly notorious beach very close to the activities of the rebel groups in that country. Why do the O’Rourkes go to Nigeria? Couldn’t they have gone, like the rest of the country, to Majorca if they wanted a cheap holiday? They go to Nigeria partly because Sarah wants to go somewhere different, but also because (and you suspect this is the real reason) the Nigerian holiday is a freebie, one of the perquisites of her position in the women’s magazine. Anyway, there they are, Sarah and Andrew, on a beach in Nigeria, trying to sort out issues in their relationship. What are the issues? Well, there is really only one issue: Sarah’s infidelity. You see, for a while now, especially after the birth of their son, Charlie, Sarah has been feeling unfulfilled in the relationship (yawn); she feels something is lacking (yawn, yawn); there is a vacuum (oh, for God's sake). Therefore, when she visits the Home office for one of her serious articles on the asylum seeker and meets Lawrence, the press officer, Sarah wastes little time in seeking asylum in his bed. When Andrew finally gets wise to the fact that his wife’s compass is pointing in some other direction, he deals with the crisis in the mature Irish way: he blows a gasket, disappears to Ireland, and goes on a bender. Lawrence is married and much as he enjoys the clandestine rendezvous with his mistress, he is unwilling to leave his wife and children, and Sarah does not quite fancy bringing up Charlie on her own. She decides to go back to Andrew with tail between her legs, so to speak, and, in the time honoured fashion of wooing back a cuckold, arranges a holiday in Nigeria. So far so good. What is Little Bee doing on the beach? There is of course no reason why she can’t be on the beach in Nigeria, seeing as she is Nigerian. Nigeria is a free country and she, as a Nigerian citizen, can go wherever she wants. However, there is a reason why Little Bee and her elder sister, Nikiruka, who has begun to refer to herself as ‘Kindness’, are on the beach. I don’t think I shall be giving away the game by revealing Little Bee’s real name, which is Udo. Quite why the two sisters decide to change their tribal names to those of an abstract concept and an insect is not made clear; but perhaps that is not important. It is important, however, to know why the two sisters are on the beach. They are on the beach because they are fleeing persecution. They are fleeing from their village; they are fleeing from the murderers who machine-gunned down (or, more probably, macheted down) all the men in their village. And now the murderers are after the two sisters who witnessed the massacre. The reader is invited to believe that the ruthless murderers are very concerned that the only way the authorities would come to know of their crimes—which involved killing scores of men in daylight—is if these two girls go to the police. Who are the murderers and why have they massacred the men in the village? The novel provides only a sketchy explanation. We do not know who the murderers are, but they have cleared the village (in a manner of speaking) because it is sitting on an oil reserve. Certain parts of Nigeria are rich in oil, a precious commodity, and (hang your heads in shame) the evil Western multinationals can’t wait to get their grubby hands on this manna from heaven. The multinationals want to drill for oil, the Nigerian politicians want the kickbacks (which the Western multinationals are willing to provide), and the marauding squads want to kill people. You don’t need to be Sir Alan Sugar to figure out that there is a scope here to form a mutually benefiting consortium. Couldn't the villagers have been re-located, given compensations, if they were expected to leave the land where they had cultivated yam and looked after (and occasionally had sex with) their goats for generations? The answer, regrettably, is ‘no’. The novel, via its protagonist, Little Bee, kindly informs the reader that Nigeria is a country of spectacular, unheard-of lawlessness. Everyone over there is corrupt. And the most corrupt are the politicians. Which means that the poor, downtrodden, beshitten village people have nowhere to go (except England). And only if the murderers do not get to them first. Quite why the mercenaries, presumably the henchmen of the big multinationals, which have the Nigerian politicians in their pockets, would feel the need to silence the two orphan sisters is not clear, but it serves the important function of propagating the story to one of its many dramatic points. So there they are, Sarah and Andrew, strolling on the beach, with a guard from the hotel resort keeping a respectable distance behind them, hoping to weave back the frayed tapestry of their marriage, and all that the couple is asking for is that they be left in peace. Is that too much to ask? Of course not; but peace and solitude are luxuries that are more difficult to get in Nigeria than a doctor's appointment in England, even if you have the all-powerful British pound (the British economy has not yet fallen off the cliff) at your disposal. Out of the jungle that abuts the beach, run Little Bee and Kindness towards them; and, hot in their pursuit, the killers. After disposing off the guard with the ease of a Vince Lombardi quote, in a highly charged and melodramatic scene (in comparison with which the most melodramatic of the most melodramatic Bollywood films would pale into insignificance), the leader of the gang, who takes this opportunity to inform the couple that he was educated in England (which just goes to show that if you are a bad egg even English education won’t turn you into a good egg), makes an extraordinary demand on the British couple if they want to save the lives of the Nigerian teenagers (begging the question why his gang was so desperately following the girls in the first place if he was prepared to let them live, after all). Andrew, very sensibly, rejects the demand out of hand, but Sarah has other ideas; she yields to the insane demand of the leader. The gang-leader may be way beyond your basic logic and facts, but he is a man of his word: Little Bee’s life is spared, but Kindness is not so lucky. She is subjected to unimaginable unkindness before she is killed. Little Bee then manages to get onto a ship headed for England; she spends her time reading (as you do) Dickens’s Great Expectations (which was obviously not a up to scratch with regard to its English, forcing the teenager to read gossip magazines so that she could improve her English once she is locked up in the detention centre). Back in England, Andrew is wrecked with guilt for not saving the life of Kindness and descends into deep depression. So deep is the depression that it is only a matter of time, you feel, before he will become suicidal. That point is reached when he receives the phone-call from Little Bee (although, as you delve further into the novel, you realise that he could—surely would—have become suicidal earlier had he known that upon their return Sarah—having got over the remorse of her adultery—had once again approached Lawrence to fill her 'salt-seller'). Andrew concludes that he has had enough of this living thing and decides to remove himself from the Darwinian pool. By the time Little Bee reaches his house—she walks all the way; running away endlessly from the men in Nigeria having prepared her well for long journeys on foot—Andrew has hanged himself; indeed Little Bee turns up on the day of his funeral. Sarah, who may or may not be a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, gives Little Bee a sanctuary in her house, knowing fully well that she is an illegal immigrant, much to the annoyance of Lawrence, the creepy Home Office man, who is hoping to lift the widow’s spirits by introducing an invigorating regime of bedroom exercise. Towards that end he has told some porkies to his unsuspecting wife and has turned up unannounced at Sarah’s home. In the breakfast room, the morning after his arrival, Lawrence tries to persuade Little Bee to give herself up to the police. Little Bee refuses to see his reasonable point, pointing out (reasonably, you have got to admit) that she would definitely be deported back to Nigeria if she did that, where unspeakable fate awaits her (she has, you are pleased to note, by now, appropriated the language of victimization). When Lawrence threatens to go to the police himself, Little Bee ripostes by threatening to tell on him to his wife. That does it. All fight goes out of Lawrence, and he decides to deal with the situation in the time-honoured English way of empty platitudes and avoidance of awkward questions. Even the devastating secret to which he is made privy (another melodramatic point in the novel) by Little Bee fails to spur him. Then Charlie gets lost, while the reconstituted, albeit temporarily, family—the grieving widow, her lover, and the illegal immigrant who may or may not have contributed, directly or indirectly (I can’t spill all the beans) to the death of the widow’s diseased (and unlamented) husband—is picnicking; and in the ensuing hysteria, the police cotton on to the fact that Little Bee has outstayed her welcome in the unwelcoming Britain. With the alacrity of a mountaineering team that has decided to beat a hasty retreat to the base-camp after discovering that the oxygen-cylinders are leaky, Little Bee is put back on the plane back to Nigeria for repatriation. Is everything lost? Not yet. Sarah and Charlie have managed to sneak on to the plane. How did Sarah know that Little Bee would be on the plane? Via Lawrence, the spy. Lawrence, who was excessively desirous of getting rid of the discommodating Nigerian teenager from his life so that he could go on sampling the widow’s goodies without any complications, has had an inexplicable change of heart now his very wish is granted. He supplies Sarah with the details of Little Bee’s flight details, knowing fully well that Sarah, who has turned into a crusader—she has resigned her job at the women’s magazine having decided that writing editorials on women’s cosmetics is not how she would like to channel her talents—would go into the lawless land that is Nigeria where, badness knows, what fate awaits her. As it happens what awaits Little Bee, Sarah and Charlie when they arrive at Abuja, Nigeria, is a team of military police. The reader is then expected to believe that the ruthless (and, lest you forget, corrupt) Nigerian military and its commander, in their own country, are intimidated by Sarah’s assertion that she is a British journalist and would report anything they did to Little Bee to the British consulate. The military then places Little Bee in a hotel—instead of marching her off to the nearest prison for leaving the country under false pretext—together with Sarah. (You are in with a chance even in the most corrupt, most ruthless and most lawless nation if only you have the backing of an honest, brave and upright—even if adulterous, but we shall let it pass—ex-editor of a British women’s magazine.) From this point onward, the ludicrous tale becomes even more ludicrous, leading—mercifully not too many pages later—to an ending that probably made Suzie Doore, the editor at Spectre, whoosh that the novel was ‘tragic but uplifting’.

The Other Hand purports to tackle the serious issue of people fleeing oppression and persecution from their home countries and seeking sanctuary in the safety of the developed world several thousand miles away. The novel, insofar as I can see, attempts to make a powerful case, via the travails of one of its protagonists, Little Bee, for giving asylum to the victims of atrocities. It also highlights the humiliating conditions in which the asylum seekers are made to live at the detention centres in England. The novel, you feel, is trying to make a serious point—that it would be a folly to paint all asylum seekers with the same broad brush. It tries to smash the stereotype—which undoubtedly exists in the minds of certain section of the British society—that all asylum seekers are either economic migrants or spongers. It is a praiseworthy aim. In the process, though, the novel creates a few stereotypes of its own. Now I am no expert on West Africa, but the representation of Nigeria and what goes on there is so unsubtle, so completely lacking in any nuance, and yet so utterly sketchy it lacks credibility. (The author provides some Mickey Mouse statistics at the end, which are about as convincing as a man weighing two hundred pounds extolling virtues of moderation).

The novel is cleverly structured. Told from the perspectives of its two protagonists—Little Bee and Sarah—it goes back and forth in time. Cleave knows the tricks of the trade: there are dramatic scenes at regular intervals and many of the chapters—like those in Cloud Atlas, to which Suzie Doore compared it—end tantalizingly. All of this helps to keep the reader’s interest going. Cleave is also very good at capturing the modern British lingo. Oiled along by prose that is not cumbrous and at pace that is brisk, the flow of narrative is smooth; the reader romps through the novel in no time. The trouble is the dramatic points—on some of which hinges the whole structure of the narrative—are, not to put too fine a pint on it, implausible. They do not ring true.

I can imagine why Suzie Doore was tempted to compare The Other Hand with Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas. Like Schindler’s Arc, The Other Hand tackles a serious issue that arouses strong feelings in contemporary Britain; and the novel attempts to be a pacey yarn, like Cloud Atlas. Unfortunately the novel manages neither convincingly. It is (unlike Schindler’s Arc) essentially a work of unserious nature, and its drama is nowhere as captivating as that in Cloud Atlas. It is an easy enough read, but that’s about it. It  won’t be sitting beside Schindler’s Arc and Cloud Atlas on my shelf. I think I will donate it to Oxfam.