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The Other Hand, by Chris Cleave

Strangers and sisters as Nigeria meets Surrey

Chris Cleave's startling debut novel seemed to bleed art into reality. Incendiary detailed the human impact of a terrorist attack in a London football stadium and was published, with staggering coincidence, on 7 July 2005. Three years on, his follow-up takes some quotidian, overlooked realities – Britain's shameful treatment of asylum seekers, and the atrocities they might be fleeing – and forges a powerful piece of art. The Other Hand is shocking, exciting and deeply affecting in its evisceration of how one hideous event brings two alien cultures into collision: the lawless predation of an oil-frenzied corner of Nigeria, and the ordered suburbia of Kingston-upon-Thames.

Celebrated broadsheet columnist Andrew O'Rourke's many opinions have become increasingly bleak. His personal distress signals go under the radar of his wife Sarah, who is consumed by the glossy magazine she edits and her Batman-obsessed, four-year-old son, Charlie.

Quickly disenchanted with Andrew's earthbound certainties, Sarah had reinvigorated her joie de vivre through a weightless affair with Lawrence, a lowly Home Office official. Its discovery led to the marriage-patching holiday in Nigeria where, on a beach, they encountered Little Bee and some wild men with machetes. Cleave's gripping narrative brings to a very sharp point the uncomfortable dilemma: would you give a finger for, or to, the life of a complete stranger?

After stowing away on a tea ship with her cargo of nightmares, 16-year-old Little Bee had spent two years incarcerated in Essex before fetching up, paperless and illegal, on Sarah's doorstep. Cleave's superb novel alternates Little Bee's traumatised but resilient voice, jocose at how the incongruities of English life might play to her African village sisters, with the stubborn independence of Sarah, who struggles to maintain control as Little Bee's arrival pitches her dynamic life into freefall.

The taut spring of Cleave's intricate plot is a sequence of unpalatable moral decisions that cleverly bind life-choices to the guilty freight of conscience. But this novel's great strength is the squeamishly raw candour of its protagonists. Little Bee's dignified vulnerability hides an instinctive streak of self-preservation, which Lawrence's precarious self-esteem matches with selfish manoeuvring for Sarah's affection. Sarah makes bold decisions in the turbulence while Charlie, fearlessly slaying baddies in the undergrowth and plaintive when "someone done a poo" in his Batcape, presents an irrepressible, thigh-high icon of dependence, manipulation and fierce affection.

Little Bee's fate is sealed by two of Batman's boyish actions. This pointed compression of innocence and grim consequence amplifies the novel's earlier outrage at the concentration-camp conditions endured by Little Bee on arrival in Britain – which draws on Cleave's volunteer work in what is now an Immigration Removal Centre in Oxfordshire. Besides sharp, witty dialogue, an emotionally charged plot and the vivid characters' ethical struggles, The Other Hand delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilised decency.

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