The Other Narrator

27 Jan

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave was a beautiful little read. I was addicted to the unique voice of its first narrator, Nigerian refugee Little Bee, especially as she ambitiously takes on “the Queen’s English” in hopes of improving her chances at being allowed to stay in the UK. One of my favourite parts:

The Queen and me, we are ready for the worst. In public, you will see us smiling and sometimes even laughing, but if you were a man who looked at us in a certain way we would both of us make sure we were dead before you could lay a single finger on our bodies. Me and the Queen of England, we would not give you the satisfaction.

But the chapters written in London journo Sarah’s voice were sometimes harshly pedestrian by comparison, especially her conversations with the “darling” features editor, Clarissa. A sample:

‘Clarissa, you’re wearing yesterday’s clothes.’

‘So would you be, if you’d met yesterday’s man.’

‘Oh, Clarissa. What am I going to do with you?’

‘Pay rise, strong coffee, paracetamol.’

When I read these parts, I was taken out of the spell cast by the rest of the story and dumped into any old Katherine Heigl/Kate Hudson/Jennifer Garner vehicle. The abrupt shift kind of reminded me of the movie Julie and Julia – being forced to flip between the awesome Julia and the whiny Julie, when I really just wanted more Meryl.

I should say that not all of Sarah’s sections had this effect on me – her descriptions of the collapse of her marriage and her struggle with doing the “right” thing felt real and not at all trivial. But the parts that did bug me were such a departure from the rest of the book that I started to wonder if the all-too-familiar non-problems of modern life were meant to make me feel uncomfortable, and sometimes even bored, after reading something like “the-men-came-and-they-burned-my-village-tied-my-girls-raped-my-girls-took-my-girls.”

Did anyone else notice this with Sarah’s chapters? Do you think this was deliberate?

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10 Responses to “The Other Narrator”

  1. savidgereads January 27, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    I have to say at the time I didnt notice that with Sarah’s part of the book. In hindsight I think you might be right but then I wonder if that was down to Cleave wanting the contrast or just the fact as a reader all you wanted was Little Bee’s wonderful narrative?

    • Lija January 27, 2010 at 11:58 am #

      As much as I loved Little Bee, I still think Sarah was important, since she represented the “what are you going to do about it” voice in all of us.

  2. Claire (Paperback_Reader) January 27, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    I noticed it too and I can’t make up my mind whether it was deliberate or not; it certainly provided a stark contrast with Little’s Bee’s narrative and the severity of the events described as did the child in the batman costume.

    • Lija January 27, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

      Maybe we’re just not comfortable reading about serious, scary things in such close proximity to what resembles our own lives?

      • Claire (Paperback_Reader) January 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

        Very good point. I think that Sarah’s narrative was an attempt to lighten it somewhat and also act as a foil to Little Bee as “other” and give the “other hand” to the story (as well as the symbolism of the title, I think it acts as an indicator to a story told from two sides).

      • Lija January 28, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

        Would you believe I only thought of the more literal meaning of the “other hand” yesterday?

  3. John Chidley-Hill January 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    I haven’t read the book, but I found your selected passage from Sarah to be grating, whereas Little Bee was whimsical and fun.

    Sounds like an interesting read.

    • Lija January 28, 2010 at 10:09 am #

      It really was! I should mention that in N. America this was published under the name “Little Bee.”

  4. farmlanebooks January 27, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    I didn’t notice that as I read it, but it is an issue I struggle with in real life. I often feel that I am having problems, but brush them under the carpet as they aren’t real problems in the way that some suffer. It is a bad thing to do though, hopefully I’ll never suffer to the extent that some do, but that doesn’t mean that personal issues aren’t important to us in this country.

    My son is currently being investigated for autism/aspergers. It is a big problem for me, but I did put off getting help for years as I felt I could cope. Sometimes I think I read about too many depressing things, so that real life always seems rosier!

    • Lija January 28, 2010 at 10:12 am #

      I completely agree that we should be allowed to have problems even if we feel guilty that they’re not PROBLEMS. So I’m still not sure what to make of Sarah’s chapters – maybe I identified with her too much, and that’s why I got annoyed with her.

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