Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Other Hand

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave (published as Little Bee in North America) is a book that embodies the Marmite effect: you either love it or hate it. Claire, Simon, and Jackie all loved it; Kim hated it and called it "emotionally manipulative" and last week linked to a reviewer, Anne, who felt the same. I had read the positive reviews before reading it (Simon's review prompting me to ultimately move the book from my wish-list to my shopping basket) but didn't come across the negative ones until afterwards. I was, however, aware of Kim's feelings and I was questioning the novel and its potential emotional manipulation throughout.

Its publication is gimmicky and Sceptre in the UK have not done the book any favours by manipulating and patronising the book consumer. The novel is prefaced by a cringe-worthy letter from the publisher that tells us how special The Other Hand is as if we are incapable of determining that for ourselves, as if our opinion does not count. The publishers should have left the novel to stand on its own merits. Moreover, to liken the book to Schindler's Ark is lazy and grandiose; if you want to draw comparisons to a powerful prize-winner then explain that it is a book that makes you question the lengths you would go to save the life of somebody else, a stranger.

However, this infuriating marketing ploy is not the fault of the novelist nor the novel and I fail to see how it is offensive beyond that - isn't it the purpose of the writer to evoke emotion where appropriate and to provoke a response in the reader? If that response is visceral then it's a job well done, is it not? I didn't find its ability to shock cheap or unrealistic nor did I think its hard-hitting subject matter was entirely undermined by its humour, which served to lighten the mood at times. As I said: the marmite effect.

I do rail against the back cover synopsis that opens with "We don't want to tell you what happen in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." It goes on to provide a vague, enigmatic description of the novel and then tells me to tell my friends about it but not to tell them what happens because I am in the habit of spoiling books for my friends/readers and to take orders from a publisher who should be capable of publicising a book and its plot without spoiling it.

That is my rant concluded and it is only against the promotion of the novel, the content of which I loved. I don't think it was a life-changing book but it was a compelling read and one I found that challenged me in parts and amused me in others, which was a welcome dichotomy. The Other Hand concerns Sarah, a magazine editor, mother, and wife from the London suburbs and Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old Nigerian refugee; Sarah and Little Bee met two years previously on a beach in Nigeria where their lives were irreparably altered and fatefully intertwined. I found the basic plot of a Nigerian girl seeking asylum in Britain thought-provoking and challenging of any preconceptions I may have had of our immigration system. Essentially though The Other Hand is a heartrending novel and not social commentary; the novel educates mildly where it can but ultimately it serves to entertain and emote.

I really did enjoy this novel and immediately popped it into an envelope to send to my mother-in-law who loves a gripping read. I recommend this to anybody who likes to be engaged in an addictive, emotional roller-coaster of a story.


claire said...

I do also think books serve to entertain and emote. Aren't all books emotionally manipulating? Tell me if there's one that's not. We go into them wanting to be provoked/led/swayed, emotionally. At least I do.

I didn't read the blurb you mentioned, not sure if I even read the book's blurbs at all (usually I don't, until after I finish, much like with book reviews, where I only read the impressions parts, not anything about the plot, excepting a few times). I also don't remember having read a preface of any kind. That preface you posted did make me cringe, too.

Anyway, glad you liked it. My favourite thing about it, really, isn't even the story, but Chris Cleave's writing, which I thought was gorgeous. And, also, I super loved the first parts with Little Bee and the other girls in immigration. That was funny.

Anonymous said...

I think I have the same edition you're talking about (cringeworthy letter from publisher, and vague blurb). However, my copy of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was similar (blurb didn't actually give you a summary), and I thought that was one of the things that made the book great! So, was hoping that The Other Hand does the same.

I did, however, roll my eyes at the publisher's letter on the front page.

Anonymous said...

Great review Claire love love loved it! You have taken everything into account and discussed it from both sides which is a delight! Glad you liked it!

farmlanebooks said...

I wasn't a fan of the marketing for this book either, but the book is so good that I can ignore that.

I saw the similarity with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas too, but as I loved both books I may be drawn towards this marketing strucure in the future - annoying but effective.

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, I agree: books are emotionally manipulative. I wouldn't WANT to read one that is not. I love riding an emotional rollercoaster whilst reading a book and still find it the best form of escapism/pleasure/mental engagement.

The UK publisher is responsible for the egregious letter and blurb and I think the US publisher let it up to the reader to judge the book.

I loved the earlier section of the book too and thought Yvette was super funny. I also thought that Charlie was adorable and incredible amusing.

anothercookiecrumbles, I haven't read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but intend to. I don't mind enigmatic blurbs/synopses but I did mind being told not to tell anybody what happens in the book; I found that condescending.

I'll need to search your blog for your review for The Striped Pyjamas; it's been on my wish-list for some time.

Simon, thank you! I thought it was important to present the novel fairly because although I didn't agree overall with the negative reviews, I did find them thoroughly thought-provoking.

Jackie, although I enjoyed the book the marketing has tainted it for me somewhat. I am so annoyed with the condescension of the publisher! As I have an interest in publishing I am finding it more and more important to question what works for me and what doesn't in the publication of a book and the industry as a whole. I'll try not to get on my soapbox too often though!

I am not immune to an enigmatic marketing ploy and agree that shrouding books in secrecy often works - it's why I immediately bought If I Stay by Gayle Forman because curiosity is a powerful persuader and I have no issues with that; I have issues with the publisher "emotionally manipulating" the reader and telling us before we read it that it is a special book, thus putting undue pressure on us to like the book, and then to presume to tell us not to spoil it for anybody else.
Hmmm, feeling soapy again!

Karen said...

I have to say I was totally sucked in by the marketing for this one (I have said it before - I am an advertisers dream!!) but at least I loved the book so I felt justified by being sucked in!! I have heard that his other book is even better??

Paperback Reader said...

Karen, I could make a good test case I think for advertisement because I barely retain an sense of the product -especially when it comes to TV ads; I barely remember ads and when I do I can seldom tell you what it was for.

I'll be looking out for Incendiary at some point.

Diane said...

This is one title I've been thinking about reading, so i appreaciate your thoughtful review; thanks

Paperback Reader said...

Diane, you're welcome! I'm looking forward to your thoughts if and when you read it.

Jodie said...

I also didn't really enjoy this book (although I thought Little Bee was mostly a strong character) and the kid character was kind of nauseating.

Paperback Reader said...

Jodie, I actually liked the kid, which is surprising because normally I don't IRL or in Lit!

It's definitely a love/hate book.