DISCLAIMER: This accidentally posted for a few hours LAST Friday because, well, I screwed up the date when I scheduled it. My bad. I do apologize if you’ve read my review already. With any luck I’ll have a classic tale up for review next week. If you were fortunate enough to NOT have seen it post last week – enjoy!
I borrowed this book from my local library after reading Kristin’s review a while back. My curiosity continued to be piqued when I perused the summary on the flap which, to my way of thinking, truly built up the mystery of the big event that occurred two years prior to the book’s beginning. Admittedly I have a hard time breaking ranks and giving a synopsis of it out of respect for the author’s (or his publishing house’s) marketing:
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. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide on fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face…
There’s more, of course, but that’s what I read before I opened the pages. The women involved seem to have little in common with each other. The first is an African girl from Nigeria who has, at the beginning of the story, immigrated to Britain and is now being released from the detention center. She knows no one in the country, her family had all died in Africa before she smuggled herself into a ship’s cargo hold and went to the UK, except the woman who was forced to make a difficult choice. This other creature, a woman who makes a remarkable decision, is a middle class British woman who had been on holiday with her husband in Nigeria at the time of their first meeting.
Cleave’s prose through out is very fluid, unique and quite remarkable (the opening paragraph):
Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.
I was hooked on the first paragraph, but by the time I got to the halfway point I was annoyed. The narrative flips between the two women’s view points, (which I have no problem with) and is constantly burdened with a huge back story. As a reader you need to know the past, it’s integral to the story, but every few paragraphs I’d find myself thrust back into the character’s reveries. Add to that the knowledge you are reading something being told presently but ALL you’re being informed of happened already. So, the characters are somewhere in time while doing the telling of these events that occur two years after a major traumatic event while also talking about the recollections they have about said traumatic event.
I do not know if it was the author’s intent to keep the reader at arms length from these women’s emotional plights, or if he simply wanted to make a few implied points about the problems with the immigration system in Britain, the politics of British interests in foreign lands, or what have you, I can only say I walked away not feeling particularly enlightened and not caring about the characters. Again, the language used was superior to many other books I’ve read recently, but the prose choice left me feeling kinda bad I couldn’t drum up a few tears when I finally found out about what happened in Nigeria. Note I did not say I felt bad about what happened in Nigeria, for that I actually still felt like shrugging even though I *knew* it was a big deal, Cleave never let me feel how momentous the choice was, nor truly feel the issues that were created for each character as a result of that meeting. Instead it was told from each character’s perspective as a narrative, not describing the anxiety, the anger and the fear they experienced. The beginning, however, does require tissues, and it was a stronger narration and exceptional scene building that left me feeling racked with pain for the characters. I truly wish Cleave had maintained that through out the work. Beyond the first two chapters, however, my heart ceased being invested in the work and, when the story is so wrought with emotional events, I can’t help but feel disappointed.