Sunday, January 03, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-66530-8 (0-385-66530-X)

Pub Date: February 10, 2009
Price: $29.95

The Bible tells us Jesus Christ gave up his life for humankind and indeed, being prepared to give up one's life has become the greatest expression of love between lovers, a parent and child and sometimes even best friends. Having said that, however, I'd like to ask you this: what is the biggest sacrifice you would make, not for a friend, a lover or even a family member, but for a stranger, someone you don't know, someone you will gain nothing from?

Now that's a tough one, isn't it?

Some people are driven to altruistic lengths to help a stranger in need. Many will donate money and time, or both. Some will make radical donations of a healthy kidney or liver to to people in need. Buddhists are well known for a ritual where they take on other people's sufferings, but all these actions, wonderful as they are, are usually premeditated and the giver has had time for prepare himself or herself for this sacrificial gift. Would we be as giving if we're taken by surprise and with an urgency that leaves no room for thinking or planning?

"Little Bee" is the story of two such strangers and how their fates intertwine one fateful summer's day in Nigeria. The central theme of the story examines how despite deep-seated convictions, life unfairly places a disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds.

Other prominent themes in the book include asylum seekers, the state of detention centers in the UK and issues a challenge to its readers to ponder why the word "refugee" has become such an ugly word in today's parlance. For instance, why is it that in late 60's and even early '70's defectors from the then USSR, or other European communists state were cheered on and even celebrated as heroes, but today we balk at having to share our resources with their countrymen. Why do we treat refugees as criminals, locking them away until their cases can be heard? Why do their cases take so long to hear?

The novel is a bittersweet one and told in two voices (the two main female protagonists that we spoke of earlier in the review). This works well because the two women are from opposite sides of the great class divide and by hearing both their voices the reader gets a dual perspective instead of just one. About the characters, I am not sure I could be friends with any of them in real life, but they made for great character studies!

So, to summarize, this is a novel that is sad and yet funny; serious and yet light-hearted; heavy and yet it's only a wisp of a novel...overall a lovely reading experience!

This novel is called "The Other Hand" in the UK and in India and the rest of the sub-continent. Anyone know why novels are sometimes given different titles in different parts of the world?


Shaista said...

Happy New Year :)
How are you? Thankyou for these recent reviews - I had heard of Half the Sky foundation before, so I am not surprised there is now a book on it. I am always amazed by the energy of your reviews - I tend to simply have an impression of books after I have read them rather than a detailed memory.. someday I would like to read a review of a book that has really transformed your life, or enhanced it in some magical way :)

Id it is said...

That's an intriguing write Lotus...the novel is now on my 'to read' list:)
...."What is the biggest sacrifice I would make for a stranger?"
...I seriously doubt that I have the ability to 'make a sacrifice' in the true sense of that word, but even if were able to do it, I certainly would be unable to do that for a complete stranger.
Would you agree if I said that altruism is an unreal expectation to have of an ordinary human being..?

A Happy New Year to you Lotus!

J at said...

I'm so glad to see you writing reviews here again! This book sounds intriguing to me.

The theme of sacrifice is one I think of especially in times of tragedy. Thinking of people who put themselves in harms way to save someone when there's an accident, or an earthquake, or a horrible crime. That is when the best and worst in us all seems to come out.

Have you read 'The Road Home', by Rose Tremain? I just finished it, and I think you'd love it. I'll post a review in the next day or so.

Prixie said...

hmm...that is a good question. let me know when you have found an answer!

Julie said...

I loved this book. And his first, Incendiary, is even better!

Madeleine said...

Happy New Year Angie, health and happiness to you and yours,
I hope this year I'll be a better blogger, last year was a difficult year. My brother passed away this Monday, very sad.


Mozette said...

I do love your site. You review the most interesting books; a lot of them I've never heard of; and that's what makes this site unique. And so, I've thought it would be lovely to give you an award (along with a few other blogs too). Come to 'My Reading List' to accept it.


Lotus Reads said...

Thank you, ALL, for your lovely comments. It's been a while since I've read anything, leave alone publish a review, so you can say I am limping back to it! Having such encouraging comments really helps, thank you!

@Shaista ~ Over the years many books have left their mark on me and changed me in small and big ways. One of those is "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham. So powerful was its effect on me that till today I haven't been able to articulate how it made me feel. If I ever get to do a re-read I might be able to do a write-up. We'll have to wait and see. :) How about you, do you have a book that completely transformed your life?

Lotus Reads said...

@Id ~ I am definitely going to have to agree that altruism is an unreal expectation of an ordinary human being and yet, it is a quality that comes so easily to some people. I guess they are the kind of individuals that get their happiness from going that extra mile. I would perhaps do that for a loved one, but I see myself holding back when it comes to someone I don't know, and yet, one never really knows how one will react in a certain situation, eh? We might surprise ourselves with our altruism, who knows?

Happy New Year to you Id and lovely to see you here!

Lotus Reads said...

@J ~ Yes, you make a good sometimes takes a tragedy to get all of us to put our best selves forward. I have heard much about Rose Tremain's "The Road Home", I will look for your review, thanks!

@Prixie ~ I guess the answer is different for everyone of us, no? :)
I haven't found my answer yet and I don't think I'm courageous enough to want to be tested!

@Sylvie ~ My heart goes out to you my dearest friend. I hope your books will bring you comfort at this very sad time. Wish we lived closer, I would have loved to have dropped in for a cup of coffee. Chin up Sylvie and I hope you have lots of good memories. Remember, all your blogging buddies are just one e-mail away....we'll always be here if you need to talk. Sending you a lot of love and best wishes.

Lotus Reads said...

@Julie ~ Cannot wait to read "Incediary"! Love the title!

@Mozette ~ How very nice of you, I am honored. Will be along shortly and thank you!

Sanjay said...

You truly have a way about you Lotus, the way you find the most intriguing books and then write down your thoughts often with an unique perspective. I get such a good sense about the book, and no book jacket conveys things the way you do. Thank you.
And you have done it again with what sounds like a wonderful book.
To answer your last question first. I am no authority on this, but often cultural, language nuances (the kind of English spoken in UK and the regions that were its former colonies) and religious nuances play a role in naming a book differently in different parts of the world. This is true about movies too. But then movies are often named one way in their regional language and then differently for the US or world markets. Noticed while researching movies on imdb. :)
But I digress. Little Bee might have sounded like a children's book perhaps in the subcontinent? And so calling it " the other hand" may have made it more intriguing. Also the other hand in English there, implies another part, or a partner or perhaps opposites?
But I could be completely wrong :)
To respond to your first question.. It is a tough one. I think people struggle with this all the time, but when having to make a decision on the spur of the moment is even harder. I am not sure I can answer this one for myself. But I have often wondered about this when tragic events have happened in the news and one often hears about strangers rushing to the rescue risking themselves, and sometimes losing it all to help someone then don't know.
As you said so well "life unfairly places a disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds"
I think you bring up a great point too about state of detention centers. I believe the status is not much better here. I could be wrong but part of the reasons states have cracked down is due to abuse of the asylum system, coupled with ole xenophobia. Back during the cold war there was an ideological reason to cheer on dissidents from the former Soviet bloc, now they are more like economic refugees.
I am not sure how much abuse there is of the asylum system, but the annual limit by law on how many refugees you can have limits that. It is sad. And then all claims have to be verified. I don't know if there are any documentaries that detail the US detention system for asylum seekers or illegal aliens. But I think the closest movie that came to show that was "The Visitor". I think you have seen that one?
The book sounds like a great read, thank you for telling us about it.
Have a good 2010, and stay warm.

Booksnyc said...


I just discovered your blog and like what you choose to read. I also have an interest in immigrant fiction.

thanks for this review - its on my TBR list!


Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj!

Thanks so much for the explanation on why books may sometimes have different titles depending on which country it is...what you say makes perfect sense...the title has to appeal and make sense to the local reader. I should have thought of that! :)))) "Little Bee", just in case you're wondering, is the name of one of the protagonists in the book and yes, it does tend to sound like a children's book....but then, the protagonist is all of 11 years old!

"The Other Hand" whose title I prefer, has a deeper meaning, but I can't give it away because if you do choose to read this book at some point i would like for the story to unfold itself to you the way it is supposed to and you will be blown away, I guarantee that!

This book has truly made me question the status of refugees and why they have gone from being heroes to people we want to keep away. I agree many are economic refugees, but many of them still come here because of civil war and torture in their own countries (Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, just to name a few) What about people from Burma and other very restrictive regimes...surely they have a bonafide right to ask for refugee status? The book has also inspired me to go visit a refugee detention center if I am allowed to. I am sure they are very depressing places, especially because most of them are prison-like and yet, the detainees are not criminals, simply ordinary people, most of whom have had no option but to run away and often...I am sure many of them wonder if they have simply gone from the frying pan into the fire?

Thank you very much for your comment Sanj...I really do appreciate your input!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Colleen!

Thank you so much for stopping by! Can I ask what got you interested in immigrant fiction? Perhaps my more recent one, "Twice Born" by Leela Soma will also interest you?

Anonymous said...

I recently reviewed this on my blog as well. I'd gotten "The Other Hand" via GoodReads and have to admit it took me a while to realize "The Other Hand" and "Little Bee" were the same book. I would image changing titles has to do with little more than marketing. I do know that there a can be changes in language or other details for the sake of comprehension. When I took my children's lit class, the instructor told us about a YA book in which the ending was actually change for American readers. This, of course has me wondering what else was changed in Cleaves book!
I preferred the British title. Imagine what the other hand could have done!!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Campbele! How are you? Good to see you here! How interesting that the publishers would actually change content as well to make it more palatable for a reading audience. I sure didn't know that, thanks Campbele! Like you, I much prefer the British title. I might never have picked to read "Little Bee" purely on the strength of its title because it provides no hook...on the other hand, "The Other Hand"... :))

Les said...

Excellent review, Lotus! I read "Little Bee" last April and many of the images are still vivid in my mind's eye. I followed Cleave's blog for a while and need to check back and see what he's been writing.

Nice to see you posting again!

iselldreams said...

Today i just saw "Little Bee" on the bookshelves translated into Turkish (under bestseller catgory). I was wondering what it was about till i came across your delicious description of the plot.

i guess as soon as i finish the book i m reading currently, i wll go for "Little Bee" ("Küçük Arı" in Turkish).