Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 378 pages; 2009.
Chris Cleave's The Other Hand was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. It is one of those books I kept picking up in bookstores and then putting down. I was intrigued but also skeptical. The blurb, surely, was a marketing ploy?
This is what the blurb on my edition says:
"We don't want to tell you what happens in this story. 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."
And then Valerie, who reads my blog emailed me, to suggest I might like it. "I expected to see it listed as one of the books you have reviewed," she wrote. "And when I didn't, I decided to email you. It is one of those books you want to tell a friend about..."
I relented and bought myself a copy the next day. I'll admit I still wasn't convinced, and the letter from the editor, on the very first page, only raised my hackles. "Dear Reader," it began. "You don't know me. I'm Chris Cleave's editor, and I'm writing to tell you how extraordinary The Other Hand is. As publishers, naturally we only publish books that we love, but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps."
She then compares the novel to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark. By this stage the phrase "she doth protest to much" was running through my head.
Still, I was prepared to banish my preconceptions and give the book a fair go, and I raced through it in a matter of days.
Obviously, I can't tell you much about the plot, but I can tell you what I thought of the story.
Quite frankly, I didn't think it lived up to the hype. It's an interesting story and it moves along at a fair old pace. There are scenes that are truly shocking and others that are good for a giggle. The characterisation is good, although not entirely believable, and there's enough social commentary to give the illusion that you're reading something deep and meaningful.
But on the whole this is a book that feels manipulative. The "reveals" -- almost one per chapter -- are cheap tricks designed to give you a fright or challenge your assumptions. While they might add some excitement to the novel, they end up trivialising quite important subject matter -- illegal immigration, suicide and violence, to name but a few.
Perhaps Cleave didn't want to write a hard-hitting novel and that's fine, but as soon as your editor starts comparing you to Schindler's Ark, one of the most hard-hitting novels of the past 40 years, it creates a pretty monumental and, dare I say it, unrealistic expectation in the average reader's mind.
I suspect The Other Hand, which has been published in the USA and Canada under the title Little Bee, will resonate with readers who like quick, accessible reads about unfamiliar subjects, but for me it was too superficial, too cartoonish and too calculating to deliver on its promises. If you've read it I'd be interested in knowing what you thought. I've got a sneaking suspicion I may well be the only person in the world who didn't love it to bits...