Chris Cleave’s second novel, Little Bee, which goes by the title The Other Hand in the UK, is
about a very serious subject and at no point as I read it did my eyes glaze over (his phrase).
The brief blurb on the front cover is a ploy a publisher can use only rarely. “We don’t want to
tell you too much about this story,” it says. “It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil
it.” Neither do I. So – no spoilers.
But to give you the background…this admirable and very moving novel is based on the oil wars
in Nigeria, as a result of which a young girl called Little Bee ends up in an immigration detention
centre in England. In a number of interviews with detainees, Cleave discovered the deplorable
conditions in England’s centres, which are managed for profit by private companies – it doesn’t
take much imagination to realize what that means. Those imprisoned have not been accused of
any crime; the effects are psychologically and emotionally harmful, especially for children, and
especially when so many of the detainees are already traumatised and have looming over them
the threat of deportation. Small wonder that Little Bee’s centre has learned to remove the
suicides under cover of night.
I won’t disclose the connection, but Little Bee re-meets Sarah, a sophisticated if apparently
shallow journalist who works in London. The point of view alternates between Little Bee and
Sarah in a way that at first seemed unbalanced because from the beginning I experienced Little
Bee as the heart of the book: stubborn, emotionally intelligent, a survivor filled with rage and
grief and burningly alive. Sarah suffers somewhat in comparison.
The first half of the book, its overall focus on the past, contains two harrowing scenes, the
second of which I could hardly bear to read (not until later was I able to assess the strength and
economy of the writing). If I had a problem at all with the novel it was in then moving to its
second half, more future-oriented, and finding suburban adultery a little less than compelling. I
soon got over this – and was it not, at least partly, the point?
Throughout the book, two worlds collide, the developing world and the developed. The choices
each character makes or has made begin to resound through the pages: principles set against
momentary cowardice or more sustained self-interest. The sheer quality of the narrative forces
me to ask myself awkward questions. How would I behave in similar circumstances? Would I
have the courage to do what was right or would I fail the test?
Chris Cleave’s website (full of writerly gems) discusses the problem of writing a serious book
without the eye-glazing that I mentioned earlier; without, as the Chicago Tribune said in its
review, having any fear of “a dull, worthy novel with a message.” He’s very clear about his aims.
A serious story must be enjoyable, accessible and a compulsive read, with moments of humour
and lightness of touch. In part, such humour, albeit dark, is supplied by Little Bee’s imaginative
strategies for suicide should the men come back: at the Queen’s garden party she’d break a champagne glass or wield a lobster claw, but a little boy’s nursery school stymies her: plastic scissors?
Although the youngest of the characters in Little Bee was based on Cleave’s then four-year-old
son who was fixated on Batman – Goodies versus Baddies – Little Bee moves far beyond such
simplicities. Morally rooted and compassionate, it responds to questions that emerged in my
previous blog about The Dream of Scipio – how do we, no matter what our circumstances, live a
meaningful life? Do we opt for self-protection or do we try to save others? Do we hold our
governments responsible for reprehensible actions in which we as citizens might be complicit?
Weighty themes. But never dull.
Little Bee is a troubling novel because I know that somewhere in the world the worst of the
events Cleave describes are happening right now. It’s also a compulsive and accessible read, just
as he’d hoped. He accomplishes this by bringing into my living room a single refugee along with
her first-world foil – each woman with a story to tell.
Little Bee says it best. “A story is a powerful thing.”