This novel is published under two names: Little Bee in the US and The Other Hand in the UK. Not one, but two great titles. And they go great together, like peanut butter and chocolate. We think it should be called Little Bee/The Other Hand – taken together, the titles reflect the novel's focus on duality, on the coexistence of horror and hope, pain and love. Since they're not one big happy title, though, we'll explore them one at a time.
This title obviously refers to the novel's main protagonist, sixteen-year-old Little Bee, whose story is the focal point. Chris Cleave (who likes both titles) says,
Little Bee is a good title […] because the novel is really Little Bee's story, so it's a straightforward and an honest title. Also I like it because it sounds bright and approachable – and my aim with this novel was to write an accessible story about a serious subject. (source)
This title also captures the novel's interest in travel and movement – bees are known for being in flight or just constantly buzzing around. However, unlike Little Bee, these tiny creatures usually have a home to return to after their wanderings. In contrast, Little Bee comes to see the whole world, in a sense, as her home. When she decides to leave Sarah and Charlie, she thinks, "But now I understood that at last I could disappear into the human race […], as simply as the bee vanishes into the hive" (9.58).
Nonetheless, disappearing into the human race would mean disappearing from Sarah and Charlie. What pulls her back to them, more than anything, is her desire to protect Charlie, specifically from Lawrence. Little Bee's relationship with Charlie, her ability to set aside her own personal trauma to improve the life of a grieving little boy, is a big part of why she deserves to have the book named after her.
This is much more sinister sounding title, as soon as you know the context – it references the finger Sarah cut off to save Little Bee's life. Sarah has a pretty cavalier attitude about her finger, saying, "At first you think it's a big deal and then you learn to use the other hand" (2.156). Sarah is talking about her own other hand, and maybe making a dirty joke at the same time, but the title actually references Little Bee's hand as well. In a poignant moment, Little Bee tells us,
I arranged my fingers underneath hers so that the only one of my fingers you could see was the one that was missing from Sarah's hand. I saw how it could be. I saw how we could make a life again. I know it was crazy to think it but my heart was pounding, pounding, pounding. (5.210)
The power of this title is in the power of this little moment. Little Bee's heart is pounding with excitement over the idea of two people coming together to provide what the other lacks. The image of two women from widely different backgrounds, shaped by wildly different experiences, clasping hands in this manner gives us something to think about for a long time.
All in all, we think this book is complicated enough to deserve two titles. What do you think?
The novel ends at a pretty climactic moment in the lives of Little Bee, Sarah, and Charlie. They are all in danger of being arrested, harmed, or killed by the police on the Nigerian beach, where Little Bee is trying to say good-bye to the memory of her murdered sister. The novel ends with a policeman's hand on Little Bee's shoulder. Talk about leaving us in the lurch. Our blood pressure can hardly return to normal, Mr. Cleave!
And he doesn't give in. We have no idea what happens to our three protagonists after we close the cover on that final page. We readers are given the task of imagining their fates. We do, at least, have a clue that they live to tell their tales. Early on, Little Bee tells us,
In a few breaths' time I will speak sad words to you. But you must hear them the same way we have agreed to see scars now. Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story-teller is alive. (1.40)
Since our narrators, Sarah and Little Bee, tell their stories in the past tense, this quote suggests they're telling them from the perspective of a (hopefully) safe future. This wouldn't tell us anything about Charlie, but since his safety seems to be one of the ending's major issues, we're betting he's doing OK too.
Several big things happen for Charlie out there on the beach. First, he gets pursued by armed policeman who don't seem to have quandaries about shooting a child. Little Bee exposes herself to the police in order to save Charlie from possibly getting shot.
She doesn't stop there, either. In addition to possibly saving his life, Little Bee helps Charlie regain his identity. Earlier in the novel, Charlie tells Little Bee why he has to keep his Batman costume on, even in the heat of the summer. He says, "if I is not Batman all the time then mine daddy dies" (9.94). Since his father is already dead, we could also read this as "if I'm Batman all the time, maybe somehow my daddy won't really be dead." In that moment on the beach, when Little Bee shares her real name with Charlie, he strips off his costume, finally free to be a kid instead of a superhero, and finally, perhaps, accepting the death of his father.
The ending wants us to come away from the novel with the image of Little Bee laughing, looking on as Charlie, dressed only in his own skin, plays in the surf with the Nigerian children. More important, perhaps, than the ultimate fate of the characters is this idea that even in times of great tragedy, there is beauty, innocence, and harmony.
Sound a little idealistic? Well, maybe the opposite is true. Author Chris Cleave says, "Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further resistance so that goodness never vanishes from the universe" (source).
So, we could look at the ending as a seed of goodness for readers to mull over as we imagine the futures of the characters. Or, we could be totally irritated that we don't get a more conclusive ending… Where do you stand?
If you've seen The Beach (with Leonardo DiCaprio – oh, right, of course you've seen it then), or read Daphne Du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca, you know that the most beautiful places can easily become sites of intense horror too. We see this most acutely in the Nigerian scenes of Little Bee. Sarah's English suburb, Kingston-upon-Thames is also a place of beauty which, for Andrew, becomes a place of despair and horror.
All of this is also kind of like what happens in Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story "The Masque of the Red Death," but with a new twist. Haven't read that one? Never fear – in "The Masque of the Red Death," Prince Prospero holes up inside his exquisite castle with his party pals to isolate himself and said pals from the plague (the Red Death) sweeping their land. But, the Red Death invades the castle, showing Prospero and the partiers (rather grimly) the reality of the world, which is suffering and death that doesn't discriminate.
For the English people in the novel, Little Bee, and the many asylum seekers she represents, is something akin to Poe's Red Death. She's an uncomfortable reminder that we live in a world where, as Chris Cleave says, "A billion people are hungry, hundreds of conflicts and wars are ongoing, tens of millions suffer from eradicable illnesses and there is always at least one genocide underway somewhere on the planet […]" (source). Little Bee echoes this idea in the novel when she tells Sarah, "You have seen trouble too, Sarah. You are making a mistake if you think it's unusual. I am telling you, trouble is like the ocean. It covers two thirds of the world" (5.80).
For Sarah's husband Andrew, coming face-to-face with this knowledge is too much. His place of comfort turns into a place of horror when he realizes how uncomfortably so many others are living. He finally learns that people seeking asylum in his land are being abused, instead of helped – and he feels powerless to stop this.
Ultimately, Little Bee argues for more humane attitudes toward and interactions with people seeking refuge. It can be seen as a call for reform at both institutional and individual levels. Although Chris Cleave is specifically taking on the UK here, readers across the globe will probably find something similar in relevant right in their own backyard too.
Ready to dive into the history of immigration in the UK? OK, here we go. After World War II, in response to a shortage of labor in Britain, The British Nationality Act of 1948 was passed. The Act "conferred the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them" (source). Come to Britain, all!* (*In the Commonwealth, but still.)
This marked the beginning of what's sometimes called The Windrush Generation, so named after the SS Empire Windrush, the ship carrying some of the first people to take advantage of the new law (source). This led to a much more multicultural British society, but also to a bunch of increased anti-immigrant sentiment on the part of the folks already in the country.
Still with us on the history? In response this hostility, then, The British Nationality Act of 1971 and the British Nationality Act of 1981 severely restricted immigration, essentially dumping that open-armed rule on its head. This changed the culture a bit, in that England (like the US) was and is still seen as a kind of promised land. You might recall the simple quote from sari girl, one of the girls released with Little Bee from the fictional immigration detention center: "ENGLAND, YES PLEASE THANK YOU, I WANT TO GO TO ENGLAND" (1.54). In her eyes, as in the eyes of others, if you can reach England, all your troubles will be over.
As sari girl's quote also suggests, there's a big disconnect between the idea of England as a promised land and the reality. Sari girl can't imagine she's already reached England because she's been locked in the detention center, which is clearly nobody's idea of a promise land. We aren't given precise details about life in the detention center, but we can tell it's far from pleasant ("detention" is in the title, after all). Most importantly, it seems to be a place where someone like Little Bee (who's only fourteen when she's detained) is held indefinitely.
Chris Cleave's interest in writing about the experiences of people in immigration detention centers began fifteen years before he wrote the book:
Around fifteen years ago […] for three days I worked in the canteen of Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. It's a detention centre for asylum seekers – a prison, if you like, full of people who haven't committed a crime. […] The conditions in there were very distressing. I got talking with asylum seekers who'd been through hell and were likely to be sent back to hell. […] I knew I had to write about it, because it's such a dirty secret. (source)
This reminds us of Stieg Larsson, late author of the bestselling Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. Larsson's experience of witnessing a gang rape when he was fifteen years old inspired him to write about violence against women when he was in his forties – that experience stuck with him all those decades. Is there anything that you've witnessed or experienced that you might write a book about in the future?
Nigeria is an African country, a former British colony, and one of the world's most significant producers of oil (source). We learn in bits and pieces that an oil company (or companies) paid people to destroy Little Bee's village and all the people in it, so they could use the land for an oil field. Little Bee and her sister, who dies before the novel opens, escape but are wanted dead because they witnessed the atrocities. When asked if this part of the story is based on real happenings, Cleave replied,
Absolutely. Nigeria is the world's eighth-largest petroleum exporting nation. […] And there has been endless violence and corruption connected with the oil exploitation – many there see it as a curse on the nation. […] Almost everyone has made a fortune except the villagers from whose land the oil is extracted. Many, many lives have been lost. (source)
And, unfortunately, Nigeria is where all of the novel's overt violence and brutality occur. It's where Sarah loses her finger, and where she really starts to lose her husband. It's also where Little Bee listens to the sounds of her sister being raped, tortured, and murdered, just feet away from her. But, it is also where Little Bee, Charlie, and Sarah really become a family, and where they begin to collect the stories of Nigerian people as part of the process of continuing Andrew's work and bringing the truth to the public.
"Britain is proud of its tradition of fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict." – from Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship (UK Home Office, 2005)
According to its website, "the Home Office is the lead government department for immigration and passports, drugs policy, crime, counter-terrorism and police." It publishes Life in the United Kingdom, which contains the information that immigrants will be tested on for the UK citizenship exam. Chris Cleave chose this quote because of the error it contains. He explains,
[Life in the United Kingdom's] summary of British history is rather selective, and the work as a whole is riddled with inaccuracies and typographical errors. My belief is that if a refugee is prepared to walk away from a regime that has imprisoned and tortured her, flee to the UK, apply for asylum, and commit to memory the contents of the text book we make compulsory for her, then for our part we should at least be prepared to have that text book professionally copy-edited. The typo in that opening quotation is a nice example of a bureaucracy that is pretending to care, but not pretending very hard. (source)
Besides offering a good jab at Life in the United Kingdom, the epigraph also points to the novel's interest in and experimentation with the different ways English is spoken. It presents us with a running debate over which English is the "right" English to use among so many varieties. We see Sarah constantly trying to correct Charlie's English (as so many parents do).We see Little Bee using the Queen's English with razor sharp precision, all the while bemoaning the beauty of the Nigerian English she gives up using in an attempt to survive life in the UK.
In addition to the language issue, the epigraph helps prepare us for the unflattering light the Home Office is cast under in the novel. Cleave isn't just writing fiction here, but addressing what he views as major flaws in the way his government treats asylum seekers and immigrants, from detention centers where they're imprisoned to the quality of the material they receive in order to study for the citizenship exam.
The novel does a fair bit of obsessing over Sarah's finger. And for good reason – it's the symbol that holds together the different parts of the novel while also deepening its conversations about loss, sacrifice, life, salvation, the nature of justice in the contemporary world. That's one pretty powerful symbol.
In this section, we compare what the finger means for Sarah with what it means to the man who took it from her.
It's not insignificant that the finger in question is the middle one – the one you wave in the air like you just don't care. The hunter, being paid by oil companies to silence Little Bee and her sister, makes this explicit:
"White man been giving me this finger all my life. Today you can give it me to keep. Now cut off your middle finger mister and give it me." (4.294)
The hunter's comment refers to the colonization of his country (by England) but also probably to his own personal experience with white people. He sees Andrew as not only a symbol of all those other white guys, but as one such white man himself – one with money and attitude, who wants to take from Nigeria rather than give.
What the hunter seems to want from Andrew is acknowledgement of the tragedy faced by Nigeria and his role in it, however indirect. And so the hunter wants a sacrifice that is both symbolically potent and physically severe. He wants Andrew to understand that in this world, justice and salvation and safety have a high price – a price beyond money. It's all really ironic because the hunter is a brutal killer and a rapist. He's likely a victim-turned-victimizer who trades in a twisted and rough justice.
The stump of Sarah's middle finger is a major catalyst for her trips down memory lane, which begin at Andrew's funeral. Here's one example:
I sat in the pew, massaging the stump of my finger, and found myself acknowledging for the first time that my husband had been doomed since the day we met Little Bee. (2.17)
This line serves as an intro for the series of tangled memories Sarah will have, and through which the story – including how she lost that finger (she cut it off when it was clear Andrew wasn't going to cut off his) – is revealed.
Sarah seems to be using her memories to help figure out how to deal with her present situation, and to think about who she is and who she wants to be. Her stump is a symbol of all that she's willing to sacrifice in order to do the right thing. The sense of justice Sarah develops over the course of the novel is in stark contrast to that of the hunter, the man responsible for the loss of her finger. Or is it? Are there any parallels? What do you think Sarah's finger symbolizes for Little Bee? Charlie? Lawrence? What did it symbolize for Andrew?
Colors are important to Little Bee. They're key tools in her storyteller's toolkit. She uses them as imagery to help us really visualize what she describes. She also uses them to help us get a sense of how she feels about her life and her world.
If you've read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Little Bee might remind you of Death, that novel's narrator, in how she uses colors. Death (a being who transports the souls of the dead from their bodies to the afterlife) uses colors of the sky (which are edible, num) to comfort himself and distract himself from his grim occupation. Similarly, Little Bee uses colors to help process her environment and emotions, to comfort herself, and to survive.
So, which colors, then? Well, here are lots of them mentioned in the book, but we'll focus on two: the color gray and sari girl's bag of lemon yellow.
I am a born again citizen of the developing world and I will prove to you that the color of my life is gray. (1.36)
Gray, as we learned in preschool, is what happens when we mix black and white together. It's also a common symbol for anything that we can't quite place neatly in one category or another. In the case of Little Bee, her identification with the color gray suggests that she feels numb and muted as a result of her experiences.
Gray is also a symbol of the hybrid identity she's developing. Because of her circumstances, the development of this mixed identity has been really uncomfortable. Had she spent her first two years with, say, Sarah and Andrew, instead of in the immigration detention center, the experience might be way more positive for her. Likewise, if she wasn't so acutely aware that she, an immigrant, is not welcome in England, she might not feel like such a monstrosity. But, as it is, she feels like a freak, somebody who belongs nowhere.
It's important to keep in mind that this is only how Little Bee sees things some of the time, just one aspect of her feelings about her life. And, there's some suggestion that she's beginning to regard her hybridity as a beautiful thing, something that doesn't result in gray, but in fresh, vibrant, living colors. For example, she gets extremely hopeful and excited whenever she sees people of different skin colors interacting. Remember how happy she is when she spots a bi-racial couple and their child in London? Or when she substitutes her black finger for Sarah's missing white one? Or, the final moment of the novel – children of different colors playing together? There are some bright colors on the horizon after all.
When Little Bee and the other three girls are released from Black Hill Immigration Removal Center, they're given clear plastic bags containing their (very few) possessions. Little Bee describes how she feels when she sees sari girl's bag, which is (oh, the irony!) completely empty. Or is it? Well, not exactly, depending on how you see things. Here's Little Bee's take:
"Why do you carry that bag, girl, if there is nothing in it?" I could see her [yellow] sari through it so I decided she was holding a bag full of lemon yellow. That is everything she owned when they let us girls out." (1.42)
This connects with the theme of "Hope" rather nicely, wouldn't you say? For all her talk of life being gray and all that, and preparing to kill herself if bad men come, Little Bee is actually a very hopeful person who tries to find goodness and beauty in whatever she encounters. Her reaction to sari girl's bag suggests that when everything we think is important gets taken from us, we must find something in that nothing, or at least try to, in order to keep on going. It demonstrates that Little Bee's moved on to problem-solving mode – no more suicide plots. She's training her eyes to see any possible opportunity for survival and safety now.
Viewing at the empty bag as a bag of lemon yellow is Little Bee looking for beauty and brightness so she and her readers aren't completely overwhelmed with all the gray. By clinging to the empty bag, sari girl expresses some of the same attitude Little Bee has. We might call it the at-least-I-have-a-plastic-bag attitude. It's an attitude that helps people in dire situations get through them, survive. The bag of lemon yellow also connects nicely with the sun and surf imagery at the end of the novel and is equally ambiguous and complex, a combination of hope and desperation.
Notice that there are lots of mobile settings in the novel (and, no, we're not talking about phones) – the River Thames, the ocean, the cargo ship Little Bee stows away on to reach England, the train that takes her to London. These settings take on deep significance when we consider the theme of "Contrasting Regions." Characters cross a bunch of geographical boundaries, going from familiar lands to unfamiliar ones, and back again.
These geographical crossings parallel the rites of passage the characters undergo. Cleave says, "Little Bee is about two women who cross boundaries – emotional limits and international borders – that most people wouldn't cross" (source). As the characters cross back and forth between worlds, they also undergo what seems like continual processes of reinvention, adapting to the new realities they face each time.
Andrew's study is a site of some major transformations throughout the novel. Andrew has being doing research on asylum seekers and immigration detention centers since he met Little Bee in Nigeria. After his death, when Sarah finds his research in the study, she believes he was trying to write a book (somehow never told his wife about this, but whatever). This knowledge certainly transforms Sarah's feelings (and maybe the readers') toward Andrew. It also changes her life as she tries to pick up this incredible book project where he left off.
Andrew really tries to transform his study into a vehicle for helping people like Little Bee, whom he believes is dead, and whose death he thinks he's responsible for. Hanging himself in his study could be seen as a symbol of his loss of faith in books, in the written word, to make a positive, real difference in the world. Sarah's decision to continue Andrew's work could represent a renewed faith in all this writing business – research, storytelling, and words in general – as ways to help others.