"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
"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
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
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