‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave


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…

22 thoughts on “‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave

  1. Agree – the blurb def sounded like a marketing ploy. Hmmmmm… I’m not convinced that I’d buy it based on the blurb and your review… I’d probably need a lot more substance to reel me in. ps incidentally, I wasn’t particularly bawled over by ‘Cloud Atlas’…!


  2. Interesting review kimbofo. I’ve yet to read ‘The Other Hand’ myself, but after making the Costa shortlist, and a couple of days ago, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist, I’ve been somewhat intrigued by it. If I get around to reading it I’ll let you know how I got on with it.


  3. I received the ARC and raced through it in a couple days. I liked the book and enjoyed how the plots slowly unfolds and juxtaposes. While the blurb is a ploy to me, i thought he was quick clever in telling his story. I give him credit for writing like a woman does.


  4. Hi Rob. I didn’t know it has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Knowing my luck, it’ll probably win. But I’ve nailed my flag to the mast now, so no back-tracking. I still think it was a fairly average read.


  5. Matt, the “voice” of Sarah reminded me very much of Nicci French, so I agree — he does know how to construct a believable woman’s voice. However, I’m still not convinced this is the masterpiece everyone else seems to think it is.


  6. Thanks, Stewart. Your review is much more perceptive than mine — but I’m glad to see that you weren’t the only one put off by the marketing/promotional tricks. This books comes in three different covers – why?


  7. Three covers? I thought there were only two. They were probably appealing to buyers’ sense of collectability. Different colours, signed first editions, etc. Rarer, most likely, is the unsigned first edition.


  8. I read this one late last year and have to say it did give me an angle on a topic I (scandalously!) know very little about – immigration detention. But I have to agree that it is not a “masterpiece” – not even really very close. I was surprised at the humour it contained though and I did want to see it through to the end. As for the comparison to Cloud Atlas and Schindler’s Ark – one is really setting someone up to fail there as far as I am concerned as I loved both of those books!


  9. I enjoyed the book (only took me a couple of days which is a miracle all in itself) but it did not live up to the hype. I’m kinda with you on that one.


  10. I’ve just finished this book – managed to read it in two days which is rare for me. I thought it was good but not as astounding as the hype would suggest. It made me realise that I need to know more about Africa so my next book will be The Poisonwood Bible which has been on my TBR pile for ages.


  11. Hi Lisa. Thanks for the link: Anne’s review is a cracker! So glad to find someone on my wavelength, as I’ve read loads of glowing reviews about this book in recent weeks, so I was beginning to think there might be something wrong with me!


  12. Thanks so much for commenting on VL – it’ll be interesting to see how many other readers agree about the gimmicky marketing devices. When I first picked up the novel I was sadly deterred by the blurb. However, I tried to read it again and again over a period of about three months, as so many friends were recommending it, but I just couldn’t get into it. Eventually I sent the book on to Anne, wondering if she might have more luck with it…


  13. Hi Kimbofo – I was disappointed with this book. I loved the first chapter and thought Little Bee was funny and quite delightful but I couldn’t get my head around the logistics, just thought the way she found Sarah in England was unrealistic and without saying too much for people that haven’t read it yet, I didn’t like the plot twist involving Sarah’s husband.
    What a shame but I am relieved to see I am not the only one!
    My review is here


  14. Thanks, Tracey, I’ve dropped by and left a comment. This is definitely one of those books you either love or hate. It wasn’t for me, but I can understand why people think it’s a good read.


  15. Hi Kimbofo
    I’ve come to this a little late via The Bookseller.
    I’m Chris’ editor, and the writer of the editor’s letter (obviously). I take no issue with anyone disliking the book. Neither do I mind if they react badly to our blurb, since it was always likely to be a divisive marketing strategy and it had been instrumental in selling over 400,000 paperbacks to date.
    I would, however, like to point out that I did not ‘compare’ the book to Cloud Atlas or Schindler’s Ark except to state that I was proud that they sat together on the Sceptre list, and that when we first encountered them they all made us as publishers feel that they were special and different from what we usually read. One of the great joys of publishing is the diversity you can bring to a list, and we were careful to word my letter in a way that made it clear that we were not claiming any similarity in theme or content between the three books.
    best wishes
    Suzie Doore


  16. Well! That is a pretty flabby response, if I may say so, Suzie! My interpretation of that ‘letter to the reader’ was that it was intended to subtly suggest, indeed without making any explicit comparison, that The Other Hand did stand comparison with Cloud Atlas and Schindler’s Ark. Clearly I was wrong to think that. But if you had to be ‘careful to word your letter’ not to claim any similarity, why didn’t you just not mention any specific Sceptre titles?
    Anyway, congratulations on your promotion!


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