Sometimes, courage and grace in the face of the unspeakable horrors that link our increasingly inter-connected worlds are what make us essentially human…
A Nigerian proverb tucked away at the end of Chris Cleve's novel, The Other Hand, says, “If your face is swollen from the severe beatings of life, smile and pretend to be a fat man”. This is a book about trying hard to be the fat man and, more importantly, realising that sometimes even such pretending is not enough to save your life. And if the pretending does not spare you even when you try to “save one minute of the quietest part of the late afternoon when the whole of time is ending”, it is still worth it because the grace of a single life lived with courage, surviving unspeakable horrors, is what transmutes individual suffering into a universal human experience.
Linked by violence
The Other Hand is literature that glows in the dark. It is a powerful exposition of violence and cruelty across societies and nations. The violence can occur in the dim, fluorescent-lit halls of immigration detention centres in the West, where physical indignity and humiliation is such that one can be accused of “an abuse of an excess of sanitary towels”; it can also occur in the jungles and beaches of Africa. It underlines the fact that as inhabitants of a globalised world, we are not only morally accountable to one another but are linked in a way that makes our choices directly impact one another's life or even death.
This haunting novel tells the story of Little Bee, a 16-year-old Ibo refugee from Nigeria, and her unexpected connection with the newly- widowed magazine editor Sarah O'Rourke. Sarah lives in suburban London with her Batman-obsessed four-year-old, a child who has been traumatised by the sudden and shocking death of his father. Little Bee turns up on Sarah's doorstep the day of her husband Andrew's funeral, speaking her perfect English and seeking help from the only people she knows in England. A chance encounter on a Nigerian beach a few years earlier, when Little Bee and her beautiful sister Nkiruka were fleeing on bleeding feet from the men who were trying to kill them, had led them to the British couple who were in a Nigerian resort trying to save their failed marriage. What follows is a viscerally stunning situation; the three of them face the inevitable consequences of that fateful day as their lives flash forward to the future.
What makes this novel important is that in grappling with contemporary questions of identity and moral choice, the reader is drawn very strongly into the counterpoise of diverse worlds. It is not that life in a Nigerian village surrounded by cassava fields, where children sit behind wooden frames pretending to be television anchors saying, Hello this is the news from the British BBC, today ice cream will snowdown from the sky, is entirely idyllic. There is internecine oil war; soldiers and mercenaries burn not just the fields but also men; they rape women and kill children. Death is a regular, everyday stalker. Similarly in leafy, suburban England, the acme of a “developed” civilisation, the mantle of domesticity cloaks the hypocrisy of contemporary life. In the brittle world of the media and in the high-powered corridors of Government, the same deceptions and disloyalties occur to take a violent and tragic toll on lives.
In many ways, whether it is the flawed and muddling but ultimately good Sarah, the quintessentially courageous Little Bee, or the guilt-driven Andrew, the characters and their haunting predicaments posit for us a range of issues against the backdrop of an increasingly globalised and inextricably bound world. What will be needed to shake us out of our complacency to confront the compromises that we make every day? What is the depth of courage and persistence needed to survive in a world that is bent on destroying you? These are the questions that we need to answer. And finally, can we live with ourselves and the choices we make, especially when it can have a tragic impact on the lives of others?
This is a book that leaves the reader with “a stone in the shoe”, as one critic put it, pushing as it does at the boundaries of experience. And in the clear but perhaps overdramatic story of Little Bee and her implacable courage is a reminder of what it really takes to be human.
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The Other Hand, Chris Cleve, Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton Great Britain, 2008.