Issue 11: Autumn
Book reviews

Two novels of exile and loss:
'The Other Hand,' by Chris Cleave
'The Road Home,' by Rose Tremain

Written by Michael Elsmere.

"How can we live without our lives?"
John Steinbeck: ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’

We often hear from politicians of all colours the phrase, “the British are a tolerant people.” Often cited are the various waves of immigration that have taken place into the country most recently from Eastern Europe but before that from Africa, the Caribbean, Jews from Europe and further back in history the Hugeonots escaping persecution in France. There is often a tone of self congratulation about the phrase which is then often followed by “but,” with a long string of reasons why immigration should be reduced or even cease. The recent ‘cap’ on immigration by the coalition government is an example of this mixed response to immigrants whether political refugees or economic migrants. What is a just, compassionate solution? There is little doubt that we are all implicated in the treatment that is afforded to immigrants. How, I often wonder, can we meet the challenges with wisdom and skill in order to mitigate suffering and loss?

The two books in this review plunge into the debate and depict in graphic detail the acute suffering of ordinary people who are forced to leave their loved ones and their homeland in search of what we all yearn for; a safe warm place to live, an opportunity to work and a healthy environment to bring up children. Perhaps beneath all those airy political soundbites there are the dark shadows of avoidance and denial?

The Other Hand takes the reader from the bush of West Africa via a shocking encounter on a Nigerian beach to the glitzy media offices of London and domesticity in leafy suburbia. The book begins in a Kafkaesque immigration detention centre set somewhere in south-east Britain. Little Bee, a 16-year-old Ibo girl from Nigeria, has been ‘detained’, an Orwellian Ministry of Truth word, here for the last two years, teaching herself skills that point back to horrific past events and forward to a hoped-for future. Making herself look unattractive to ‘the men’ is the first of several allusions to Little Bee’s past. Learning the Queen's English from quality broadsheets obsessively, although having obvious relevance, also points to a fearful desperation for anonymity.

"Excuse me for learning your language properly. I am here to tell you a real story. I did not come here to talk to you about the bright African colours."

These colours, when they come - on a beach in Nigeria - are dark Goyaesque, and the route back to them begins with Little Bee's so called ‘release’ from the centre with three other traumatised women, variously cheerful, bewildered and suicidal, and a phone call to a columnist and journalist, Andrew O'Rourke. Little Bee had encountered Andrew and his wife Sarah on that beach in Nigeria. Now he is stunned and dismayed to hear from her.

From this, the rest of Little Bee's story begins to unfold. Something horrific has happened that has not only left its mark on the teenage Ibo girl but has shaken the O'Rourke family to its foundations. In Kingston-upon-Thames, Andrew suffers from acute depression. Sarah, who edits a women's magazine called Nixie, pursues an unhappy affair. Their young son Charlie dresses and lives as Batman. Their story is narrated by Sarah - necessarily so, because in the time between Little Bee's telephone call and her arrival in Kingston, Andrew commits suicide.

"It started on the day we first met Little Bee, on a lonely beach in Nigeria. The only souvenir I have of that first meeting is an absence where the middle finger of my left hand used to be. The amputation is quite clean. In place of my finger is a stump, a phantom digit that used to be responsible for the E, D and C keys on my laptop,” relates Sarah.

Cleave's unobtrusive skill in sentences like that allows the world of the machete to be glimpsed through the world of the laptop. Most of the action has already happened when Little Bee and Sarah reunite. Then, in a violent, compressed, intense and chilling setpiece flashback, he has Little Bee tell how she first met the O'Rourkes in Nigeria, and what happened on the beach. This kernel of violence throws up a stark choice and drives a wedge between Sarah and Andrew O'Rourke. Life in England may appear superficial compared to a life-and-death struggle for existence in the tropical forests east of the Niger. Little Bee, however, has voted with her feet. One can have too much authenticity. Too much world.

We know the pressures that the steady flow of immigrants has caused in our society, though we hear less about the benefits of having them here; nor do we have much idea what they think about us or their lives.

Lev, the Polish migrant in Rose Tremain’s book, expects to find men who looked like Alec Guinness in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai,’ but found they were slovenly fat geezers with shaven heads and garish tattoos, and not so different from those he worked alongside in the sawmills back home before losing his job. The tragic death of his adored wife, his responsibility for his small daughter and his ageing mother, and the need for money in a decaying village that has lost its heart, persuade Lev to leave for London. Lev's London is awash with money, celebrity and complacency – an ugly picture of the way we live now. Fortunately, he’s a dreamer with a will of iron and the luck of the devil, as well as being strikingly handsome – as Lydia, the woman sitting beside him on the bus, is quick to spot. She is a translator and teaches him a little English on the bus, and gives him her address in London.

Lev sleeps rough and is afforded kindnesses by strangers, all foreigners like him. He distributes leaflets for a restaurant and finally has to ring Lydia. She scans the ‘Wanted’ columns for him. He finds a job washing up in a restaurant under a famous egotistical chef, G. K. Ashe, who wants his pans “clean enough to drink cocktails from”. Lev finds a room with the dissolute Irish Christy, a kindly drunk who hates celebrities: “If you can’t get your ball at the back of the net you’re no one.” Lev is hardworking and adept and is rapidly promoted. Money flows back to Poland. Nothing but success lies ahead. Only the longing for his daughter keeps him awake at nights. However, apparent ruin faces him when he is arrested after a drunken assault on his vacuous English girl friend and Ashe sacks him.

Tremain has reached a turning point. This dilemma is resolved when Lev hears that his village is to be destroyed in order to build a new dam. He has no choice but to return. He’s now an accomplished chef, so he can, and does, make money fast. He could, of course, send more money home and stay put but he chooses to pretend that he’s burnt his boats here. Besides, he’s hatched a new plan to make money back home that, he being Lev, sounds mad but is not. We know he will make it work.

Rose Tremain writes apparently effortlessly, tackling the serious misery of a hidden homesickness with a light and humane touch but with a firm grasp of the terrible day-to-day realities. She has a rare ability to enter into the complex emotional world of the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider. She’s on Lev’s side. England has made him a chef, but when is gratitude ever enough to overcome the longing to go back to one’s own, to live one’s own life?


Back to front page