Welp. I read my first flipback book. Thanks to Laura Stanfill, whose blog you can check out here, for introducing me to them! I won a copy of The Other Hand (known as Little Bee in the United States) by Chris Cleave from this blog post by Laura. Here’s what a flipback book looks like.
It’s small and portable, perfect for a reader who can’t go anywhere without a book. As Lemony Snicket says, “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” Those are words to live by.
Although the book is called The Other Hand (2008), I will refer to it as Little Bee throughout this post.
On the back of Little Bee, it says mysteriously that this is a special story about two women, but that it won’t give away the plot so as not to ruin the story for you. It also admonishes you, as the reader, to not tell your friends what the book is about so you won’t ruin the experience of reading it for them.
I am a rule follower, most of the time, but arbitrary “rules” like this just make me want to break them. So I’m going to tell you about this book. I’ll try not to give so much away that it RUINS the experience for you.
We are introduced to Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old Nigerian refugee, as she is leaving a detention center outside of London. She is released without papers but has the address and ID card of a British national, whom she calls. He and his wife Sarah are the only people Little Bee knows in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s part of the story is introduced. Every other chapter is an account through Sarah’s eyes and then Little Bee’s eyes. They are already joined by unspeakable terror and violence in Nigeria, the details of which I cannot tell you, for it is a part of the plot you’d likely wish to see unfold for yourself. But let’s entice you to read it by saying that Sarah is missing the middle finger on one of her hands because of what happened in Nigeria, and the reason why is revealed later on in the book.
Sarah has a cute four-year-old son named Charlie who always wears his Batman costume and runs around fighting “baddies.” He helps to connect the women even further and serves as comic relief amid the novel’s exploration of weighty matters.
Most striking to me is the contrast between first world and third world problems. We see Little Bee’s perspective, which highlights her concerns of death and terror, contrasted with Sarah’s concerns of which sexy advertising spread to should use in the magazine she runs. Little Bee highlights the legacy of colonialism, while Sarah’s experiences highlight the privileges whites in the first world enjoy over everyone else in the world.
The problems with the novel are the unrealistic philosophizing by Little Bee. English is her second language, and she has worked hard to learn it well in the detention center. However, she is almost too fluent. She’s also too young to have such wisdom, but she has been through many harrowing experiences, so perhaps wisdom comes with trauma rather than age. The book also perpetuates the stereotypes of Africa. Cleave, admittedly, says in his acknowledgements that any problems with the book are all his and all of the successes of the book are due to wonderful friends and editors.
I have to admire Cleave, because his novel works to expose the greed, corruption, and horror surrounding the oil wars in Nigeria. I know they are real, as in a former life I was an editor of a document that explored worldwide security incidents. I read about Nigerian conflicts, killings, and kidnappings every day. But I also know that these incidents are not the only facet of Nigerian life. I recently read and told you about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie here. She warns of the danger of a single story about any person or country. People and countries are more complicated than that. Nigeria may have oil wars, but it also has universities. In her TED talk, Adichie remembers a house boy to her family that she always thought of as just poor. When she visited his home, she realized that he was poor, but that he was also happy, a member of a large family, and a person beyond the poverty. This single story is one of the major problems with Little Bee.
Nevertheless, I had a great time reading it. I would recommend this novel as a great way of introducing yourself to the conflicts of Africa, colonialism, and immigration if you don’t already know about it. In that sense, it is somewhat simplistic. If you already know about these issues, you may care to read the book for the purpose of putting a human face and heartwarming story on the larger issues.
There’s your review, and I didn’t even give away the two big plot twists. I guess I’m not as rebellious as I think I am.