Tag Archives: immigration

The Other Hand – genuinely spellbinding

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave came to me via Lovely Mum. I would never have bought it myself because the cover is generic and uninspiring and the blurb, which earned a lot of sneers in the publishing world when it came out, starts off by saying “we don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it”. Gimmicky or what?

Thank god Lovely Mum didn’t have similar qualms, because this book is truly special. It is the story of two women: one a Nigerian refugee, one a magazine editor from Surrey. I won’t tell you how their worlds collide – I know, I know, I’m joining forces with the dastardly blurb-writers – but I can’t spoil it. I thought I would insist on it but I find that I can’t.

Instead, I will just tell you to buy the book. Buy it now. It will swallow you up as soon as you begin. You will find yourself impatiently awaiting your journey home. You will lie awake at night thinking about the women. Your eyes will fill with tears at times. You won’t care that you’re in public. You will smirk to yourself at the antics of the five-year-old boy we must call Batman. You will wish you had a pen to mark out the words you never want to forget.

It is hilarious, it is horrifying, it is desperately, desperately sad. It is still haunting me. It is peerless. It opens a window into a dark world whose depths you would otherwise struggle to imagine. It is meticulously researched and lovingly crafted and it will make you itch to do something in the way that even the best and saddest books rarely do.

Buy it. Buy it. Buy it! I won’t tell you again. I haven’t read anything remotely as wonderful as The Other Hand for years, if ever.

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Brooklyn – this is the real thing

I recently got myself a library card for the first time in years (the library is now called an ‘ideas store’, which demonstrates how long it’s been since I was last there). What once was a quiet, cool, dusty place of learning is now bright blue, made of glass and full of teenagers flicking through foreign DVDs. (Yes I am aware of how old I sound right about now.) Anyway, the principle is the same. You walk in, you choose a book and they give it to you for free. Genius.

So the first book that caught my eye when I walked in was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I remembered reading one of his previous novels, The Heather Blazing, when I was in my first year at university studying English. I read a lot of books and I forget most of them pretty quickly but The Heather Blazing is one I still remember vividly as being the most haunting portrait of loneliness and imperfect love ever written.

You see, Colm Tóibín is a national treasure kind of author. His prose is so confident and so natural that you know as a reader that he was born to do this. His style is so quiet and unassuming – he doesn’t have to tell you what kind of people his characters are, you find yourself assessing them unbidden. You find you have come to know them from their everyday lives, you can predict them – as though they were friends or family  – not just words on a page.

One thing I found interesting about Brooklyn was how much critical acclaim it received despite its relative slowness. The majority of the book consists of Tóibín setting the scene: Eilis, his protagonist, pottering round her hometown of Enniscorthy, Eilis getting used to life in strange, exotic Brooklyn and so on and so forth – indeed, hardly anything dramatic happened until about two thirds of the way through the book. Strangely, that didn’t matter to me nor, seemingly, did it matter to anyone else. Tóibín doesn’t have to shout about Eilis’s mother’s loneliness for the reader to feel it – nor does he have to spell anything else out. His writing is so deeply lovely and his sense of character so precise it is enough that the book is a window into another life, a window into the past.

Brooklyn is a great read, even for people who aren’t big readers. It is charming, understated and memorable all at once. It’s an easy-going, Sunday afternoon type of story with an underlying current of sadness that is typical of Tóibín. He’s never pushy with his words, never overblown with his storylines… that’s why I love him.

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