Hmm hmm hmm… "One love/ One life/ When it's one need/ In the night…" Yeah, the talk of love found in U2's "One" can definitely be this theme's song.
Little Bee, who has heard U2 in Nigeria and in the English immigration detention center where she's held, tells Sarah, "That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2" (5.30). U2's music is all about love, peace, and world harmony and, hey, we love it, too. But the theme of "Love" in Little Bee is very much about how little love there often is for asylum seekers and other immigrants in the nations they flee to. It's also about the special kind of love that forms between Sarah, Charlie, and Little Bee. It's about the pain of losing loved ones. And it doesn't end there – to keep things spicy, Little Bee also has an extramarital affair. To keep it tender, we see love through young Charlie's innocent eyes. As in "One," love in Little Bee is complicated, dangerous, and, sometimes, just downright sweet and caring.
Death lurks on most every page of Little Bee. In flashbacks and confessions, our two narrators, Sarah and Little Bee, reveal their tragedies. Little Bee witnesses the slaughter of her family and the people in her village. She hears her sister get raped, tortured, murdered, and dismembered. She witnesses Sarah's husband Andrew hang himself in his study. Sarah and Andrew's four-year-old son Charlie struggles to deal with his father's untimely death, which lends extra innocence and poignancy to this brutal tale. Although deeply morbid, Little Bee is more about finding hope and joy in living, even when death seems to be stalking.
Little Bee shows characters undergoing extreme transformations. It's about the marks that grief and suffering can leave, and about how some characters can transform sadness into beauty, while other succumb to despair. The novel looks at how psychological and physical transformations interact. The loss of Sarah's middle finger, Charlie's Batman disguise, and Little Bee's cloaking of her beauty and femininity in the detention center are some good examples. In each case, the characters' physical transformations are manifestations of deep inner changes. Of course, only Sarah's physical transformation is permanent. Charlie and Little Bee are able to re-transform when their disguises are no longer needed. Sarah, on the other hand, wears her transformation on her body, for everyone to see.
The novel, by raising awareness, also seeks transformation of society. It argues that serious reform is needed – at individual and institutional levels – in how we think about and treat asylum seekers and other immigrants.
Little Bee moves back and forth between England and Nigeria, exploring both countries from the points of view of its two narrators: Nigerian Little Bee and English Sarah. Little Bee gives us somewhat idealized glimpses of life in her rural village before it became a target for oil companies. Although the actual destruction of the village and the murder of most of the people are never detailed, the brutal rape and murder of Little Bee's sister on the Nigerian beach is.
Most of Little Bee's time in England is spent in an immigration detention center. She's only on the outside for a few days before she's deported. Through descriptions, and her imagined conversation with "the girls back home" (now all dead), Little Bee shares the wonder and the anxiety she feels about this new land. Sarah's own discomfort with her industrialized society, and her suburban neighborhood provide a viewpoint that contrasts and compliments Little Bee's.
Chris Cleave says that Little Bee "is a story of two worlds: the developed and the developing, and of the mutual incomprehension that sometimes dooms them to antagonism" (source). We'd say it's also about how Little Bee, Sarah, and Charlie cut through that mutual incomprehension. They find common ground that transcends cultural differences.
To quote U2 again (we happily will), "If you need someone to blame/ throw a rock in the air/ you might hit someone guilty." In Little Bee, everybody, even four-year-old Charlie, is awash in guilt and blame. The novel looks at the guilt that survivors feel when their loved ones are lost, and how such guilt can be transformed into something positive, something that tries to right wrongs in the world. An example of this is Sarah and Little Bee's commitment to finishing the book about the plight of refugees, which Andrew began before his suicide.
Little Bee's author, Chris Cleave, takes direct aim at oil companies, calling them out on atrocities committed in the thirst for oil. He also critiques institutions that process asylum seekers and people trying to immigrate. Cleave even points his finger at us, ordinary citizens, asking us to consider if our attitudes toward asylum seekers and other immigrants are just.
When Batman (in his four-year-old incarnation) is one of the principal characters in a book, we can bet that "Justice and Judgment" will be a big theme. Justice isn't something easy to see or easy to get in this novel. Good people die, while their killers go unpunished. A young girl is locked in a detention center with adults for two years of her life. A young boy loses his father to the grips of depression and despair. There are millions of people suffering in the world. The novel explores how utterly overwhelming it can be to acknowledge all the injustice in the world, and how hard it can be to try to put a dent in all that. Ultimately, justice in Little Bee is between individuals who act bravely and unselfishly to try to make things right, even at great cost.
This is a big theme of Little Bee. English, as in many former British colonies, is the official language of Nigeria. Little Bee points out that Nigerian English, a blend of English and African languages, is very different form the Queen's English she learns in an attempt to survive in British society. The novel asks us to consider how language and identity formation go hand in hand.
Little Bee is also concerned with writing. Sarah and Andrew are both journalists – people who make a living with words. Andrew's encounter with Little Bee and her sister lead him to lose faith in words as a way to make a real difference in the world. Conversely, Little Bee and Sarah, by the end of the novel, gain a renewed faith in the power of words to heal, both through individual conversations and through publishing accounts of hidden atrocities. The novel also argues for a change in the way we ("developed nations"), individually, in the media, and in our institutional policies and literatures, talk about asylum seekers and other immigrants.
One of the major differences between Sarah and Little Bee's narratives is in their experiences with technology. Sarah is so much a part of the digital age that she eats, sleeps, and dreams in technology. Little Bee, whose village was not industrialized, has to process and acclimate to all the technology she sees before her. She experiences a Kafkaesque alienation as a result of, among other things, her experience of being processed by the bureaucracy of the immigration detention center. The novel also explores one of the great ironies of globalization – that money is allowed to move freely across all boundary lines, yet people are not.
The main characters of the novel – Little Bee, Sarah, and Sarah's son Charlie – all walk a fine line between hope and desperation. Ultimately, these three find hope in each other, each providing what the others lack. Little Bee and Sarah also seem to find hope in continuing the work Andrew left behind (on the situation in Nigeria and the treatment of refugees in detention centers in the UK). Part of this continuation is collecting stories from other Nigerian people who experienced things like Little Bee did, in hopes of using them for a book meant to increase awareness of the situation. Little Bee and Sarah are not content to simply help themselves, but feel the need to assist others as well. Helping others might just be a crucial component of hope, at least according to Little Bee.
This connects the theme of hope with what author Chris Cleave says is a major theme: compassion (source). When characters are compassionate, and focus on soothing the suffering of others, their own desperation fades, at least momentarily. For example, at the end of the novel, Little Bee is so focused on helping Charlie live that she puts herself right in the hands of the soldiers who might want to kill her. Even though we don't know whether the characters survive the beach, the moment is hopeful in that it shows Little Bee performing acts of kindness toward Charlie, because it's the right thing to do, whatever the cost.