Perhaps the test of a book’s quality should be its power to make you oblivious to everything else. I’d often thought this in a nebulous sort of way, but I realised its full impact when I decided to while away my daily four hour commute by reading The Other Hand. I missed my tube stop (twice) on the way there and sniffed through many a tissue on the way back. And I even managed to break through the commuter wall of silence as the woman next to me actually spoke to me to ask what I was reading (yes, it was an embarrassing commute). Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand tells the story of two women whose lives, on the surface, couldn’t really be more different. One (Little Bee) is a teenager from a tiny Nigerian village. The other (Sarah) is a successful magazine editor from London with a toddler son. One chance encounter on a beach in Africa collides their two worlds. And when Little Bee turns up as a refugee on Sarah’s doorstep in cosy Southern England, Sarah is forced to realise that she shares more than she thinks with Little Bee and to accept that their lives are irrevocably linked from now on.
What is really remarkable about Chris Cleave’s writing is his ability entirely to take on the voices of the two women, bringing each to life more vividly and with more skill than any first person narrative I’ve ever come across. As the characters grow closer to each other in the narrative, they become closer to us too, and shed a light on the choices we make, as individuals and as a nation. For in The Other Hand no (wo)man is an island, and every choice has a consequence. As personal as it is political, Chris Cleave’s astounding novel entertains, shocks and above all makes you think.
In the first Cult Books column this term, Hattie Soper referenced The Telegraph’s definition of a cult book as being something that people carry around with them as a totem. If not this yet, then this is what The Other Hand should become: a totem, representative of the power of a book to transport you into someone’s alien universe. And representative of the humanity of writing, the compassion of reading, and the necessity of imagining.