Little Bee first hit the shelves in 2008 in the UK under a title you might not recognize: The Other Hand. This bestseller (whether Little Bee or The Other Hand is more your cup of tea) is the follow-up to British author Chris Cleave's 2005 debut, Incendiary , a novel made up of letters written to Osama Bin Laden, from a woman who has lost her husband and son in a bomb attack. (You might have seen the movie version with Ewan McGregor). Though that's obviously pretty heavy material, Cleave manages to make both Incendiary and Little Bee (also an exploration of tough stuff) funny, hopeful, and entertaining at the same time. Cleave is also a columnist for the "Family" section of The Guardian, once again covering some important material – parenting – but doing so in a pretty darn humorous way.
Little Bee is the story of a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl who is seeking asylum in England after her village is destroyed and her family slaughtered by oil company workers who want the land for an oil field. Real life events inspired Cleave to write this richly imaginative and deeply disturbing story. In his own words:
In 2001 an Angolan man named Manuel Bravo fled to England and claimed asylum on the grounds that he and his family would be persecuted and killed if they were returned to Angola. […] [I]n September 2005 Manuel Bravo and his 13-year-old son were […] interned at an Immigration Removal Centre in southern England. They were told that they would be forcibly deported to Angola the next morning. That night, Manuel Bravo took his own life by hanging himself in a stairwell. […] Manuel Bravo, aware of a rule under which unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, had taken his own life in order to save the life of his son. […] (source)
The novel is full of moral dilemmas like the one faced by Manuel Bravo, and Cleave clearly hopes to challenge our thinking about the way asylum seekers and other immigrants are treated. Although ultimately a hopeful and tender read, death and suicidal thoughts lurk on almost every page. Cleave says his goal in writing the novel was to "offer up a dark theme to the light, so that it might be examined" (source). And we think he does a pretty good job with that. So, read on and be prepared for lots of surprises, some gruesome, and some uplifting.
P.S. If you finish Little Bee and want to read some related stories, you might start with Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners. If you haven't already, you'll also want to read Chinua Achebe's classic novel Things Fall Apart, which explores Nigeria just during the initial stages of British colonization. Follow that up with another Nigerian author, Ken Saro-Wiwa. His Sozaboy describes the Nigerian Civil War from the point of view of young man recruited into the fight. See you at the library!
We have one word for you: Batman.
OK, fine, we'll go on, if that's not reason enough. In Little Bee, Chris Cleave creates a Batman you'll never forget, and odd as it might sound, a Batman who might just break your heart. Just in case you've been living in a cave up until yesterday, Batman, a DC Comics character created in 1938, has almost universal appeal. He's a major pop culture figure who gained some more recent popularity with Frank Miller's famous 1986 adaptation, The Dark Knight Returns. The success of Miller's graphic novel sets the stage for a virtual explosion of Batmania (we wish we made that word up) in movies, comics, video games, and countless parodies, including of course Bartman, alter ego of Bartholomew JoJo "Bart" Simpson.
So what's so appealing, so fascinating about Batman? There are so many things, but we think Batman's humanity is a big part of it. He's a superhero with absolutely zero superpowers. He's totally mortal. His mind, his body (along with his gadgets and vehicles!) are his most powerful weapons. He kind of makes it seem like any of us could be superheroes, too – if, you know, we had the right motivation. Speaking of motivation, Batman's motivation for becoming a superhero is also something we can relate to. Batman is driven to fight for justice when his parents are tragically murdered, leaving him orphaned.
Through his own version of Batman, author Chris Cleave highlights the theme of justice in Little Bee. He looks at how seemingly ordinary people are, like Batman, utterly transformed by tragedy, and sometimes even driven to fight for the safety of others because of it. The novel also explores the extreme pressure ordinary people who want to be superheroes face. So, like the other Batman stories that come before it, Little Bee makes us think, "Hmm. Maybe I could be a hero too…"