Kindle Surprise: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

a.k.a. The Other Hand

“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’.”

Another book that falls into the category of “ones I’d never had read without this project,” it turns out to be a worthwhile endeavour. By coincidence, it’s a story told, like the last book I covered, Cold Mountain., in chapters that alternate between two very different viewpoints. That is really about the only similarity though: while Cold was very much a period piece, this is perhaps even more relevant now – the weekend of the Paris terrorist attacks – than it was when it came out in 2008. It tells the story of “Little Bee,” a Nigerian refugee, who flees a hellish civil conflict in her home land to England, and is then held in an immigration detention center for two years. When let out through a bureaucratic bungle, she makes her way to the home of the only people she knows, the O’Rourke’s, a couple she met on a Nigerian beach under disturbing (and initially vague) circumstances. The other half of the narrative is Sarah O’Rourke, a magazine editor, devoted mother and not-so-devoted wife, who is understandably surprised to see an escaped refugee show up on her suburban doorstep.

Cleave worked in one of the detention centers for a while, and wanted to write the book to humanize refugees, by picking out one of the myriad of stories present. On that basis, he succeeds, with Little Bee certainly a sympathetic character. She’s smart, despite her lack of education, teaching herself English during her incarceration, and independent, making her way from the center, through London, to the only address she knows. She even has a dry, self-effacing wit. It’s just like an illegal immigrant version of Finding Nemo! [Okay, that’s a stretch] Sarah is… considerably less so, coming over to a certain extent – particularly early – as the kind of whiny media luvvy deserving of mockery. That becomes muted later on, when the facts of her first encounter with Little Bee become apparent, and what that cost Sarah, both physically and personally – you can certainly argue that the price she paid, included her husband, is almost as much as that of Little Bee.

You do gain an insight into, and appreciation for, the plight of the “true” refugee, and the author is also to be commended for laying off any obvious political message. While it’s clear he’s saying we need to be more tolerant of, and treat better, those who come to our country seeking sanctuary, he avoid doing so through “soapbox writing,” and largely lets that come through the actions and thought of his two main characters. However, it all seemed more than a little contrived towards that end, in terms of both those he portrays, and the events that happen to them. I sincerely doubt Bee’s story is even slightly typical of most asylum-seekers, and that makes it relatively easy to dismiss as unrepresentative. As usual, the truth is not to be found at either extreme; neither Bee’s near-saintly acts, nor in the “benefit scrounging scum” beloved by certain tabloids. Though it would have been more of a challenge, and more impressive achievement if successful, to have taken one of the latter and turned them into a hero or heroine.

I’m not certain of the reason for the difference in title: in the US and Canada, it’s called Little Bee, while the original one was The Other Hand. While it was the former version I read, and so have used as the main title throughout this piece, I must say, the latter probably makes a good deal more sense, having a double meaning, one of whose aspects is reflected in elements of Sarah’s story. I can’t say it has necessarily changed my view on the thorny topics of immigration [it’s a nightmare trying to come up with any kind of regulatory system – something undeniably necessary – that can cope fairly and justly with the vastly differing circumstances thrown at it], but the book did still give me food for thought, without ramming its opinion down my throat.

“Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it.”

The pros and cons of holiday cruises

Until last weekend, I had never been on a cruise. The closest was probably the overnight ferry from Newcastle to Esbjerg which opened more than one Inter-Rail holiday as a student, and which counted as a cruise to about the same degree Aileen Wuornos qualified as an escort. They just didn’t appeal; my interest was much more in the destination, not the journey there, which should be as quick and painless as possible. But when Chris’s company picked her to go on the last pre-opening sailing of Royal Caribbean‘s newest mega-liner, Anthem of the Seas, it would have seemed churlish to refuse, even before the words “all expenses paid” and “yes, that includes all your drinks” were heard around TC Towers. For Chris, it was a “familiarization trip,” an experience which would allow her better to sell the company’s cruises to customers. For me… Did I mention the free drinks?

We flew out on Saturday, arriving in Newark with the night free, to do as we pleased. This would involve not staying in Newark, which is an endless warren of industrial depots and so many freeway cloverleafs they might as well change the name of the city to “Bear Left,” going by the frequency that instruction showed up on Google Maps. We headed into Manhattan for the first time in 15 years or thereabouts; yes, the last occasion, there were still twin towers on the skyline. It hasn’t actually changed much otherwise, though Times Square is now infested with about a million costumed “characters”, extorting photo ops and money with vague menace. You really haven’t lived, until you have been harassed by a six-foot tall Elmo with a thick foreign accent.


We did get to the 9/11 memorial, which was impressive in scale, consisting of a pair of gigantic reflecting pools, an acre each in size, with the names of all the victims inscribed on panels along the edges. Not sure if the moderately heavy spray being blown out of them was intentional, perhaps as a metaphor for souls escaping; I’d like to think so. One thing we had forgotten about was the hell which was New York traffic. Fortunately, we were driven around by Chris’s long-time friend Denise, but I have clearly lost the knack of big city life after a decade and a half in Phoenix, where “gridlock” is defined as “only being able to drive five miles per hour above the speed limit”. In New York, red lights are more a suggestion – oddly, that seems to be especially the case for nature’s most vulnerable species, cyclists and pedestrians, both of whom plunge into traffic with an instinct for self-preservation more befitting a depressed lemming.

Somehow, we survived, and made our way on Sunday morning to the Anthem of the Seas. It’s big. As in, one hundred and eighty-six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six tons big. As in over three football pitches long, at 1,142 feet. And as in implausibly tall. I get icebergs floating: 90% is below water, so it kinda makes sense. But this ship stands 135 feet above the water, about five times what’s below it. Sitting on our 11th-floor balcony, gazing over the side, this appears an affront to nature; I had a genuinely disturbing feeling nature was suddenly going to realize this, and correct things by flipping our luxury cruise into a real-life re-enactment of The Poseidon Adventure. That it didn’t, can only be the result of dark, Satanic forces at work.

Speaking of which, equally eerie was how freaking quiet it was. We didn’t realize we had set sail, until we noticed the dock moving past. Well, we’re still in the harbour, it’s probably because the engines are probably just ticking over. Nope. Even going full steam in the Atlantic, I couldn’t hear them at all; the only exception was coming back, when we shuffled up to the wharf sideways. You couldn’t even feel any vibrations; if you weren’t looking at the ocean, you might as well have been tucked away in a luxury resort somewhere. Hell, one of the bars even had pool tables, that’s how confident they were of the ship’s stability. Admittedly, the calm conditions helped, but this ship could probably have snuck up on and surprised a ninja. Not sure how it managed this; I’m guessing regular human sacrifices in the bowels of the engine-room somewhere.

Two other things surprised me in particular: how seriously they take both safety and personal hygiene. I’m used to planes, where the demo consists of 45 seconds of token verbiage, recited by a bored stewardess, because we all know that in the highly unlikely event of a water landing, the fact your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device is not going to be remotely relevant. On the cruise, however? A full-on, 20-minute presentation, with all ship facilities closed, at which attendance was mandatory and roll-call taken through scanning of our key-cards. Though I’m unsure how good the record-keeping actually was, because we got a stiff letter warning us of our absence, despite having actually been present. I was also somewhat concerned about the life-boats, which supposedly hold over 300 people each, despite being little more than the size of an average bus.

The presentation opened with a three-minute animated film on the importance of frequently washing your hands, and the entire ship was littered with hundred of dispensers of hand-sanitizer, even outside the poshest of the boutique stores. Want to go to the buffet? You can only enter it, after being diverted past a line of sinks. I washed my hands so many times over the two-day cruise, I felt like Lady Macbeth. I can certainly understand the point of this OCDness, Chris having shared some real horror stories about the evils of norovirus. It may explain why the check-in process also included being quizzed about our recent health, although I doubt someone who had felt ill would actually answer the questions honestly, any more than people would admit at the airport, “Why, yes – I did leave my luggage unattended, thank you for asking!” If I’m well enough to make it to the docks, I’m going on this cruise, dammit!


Rather than burden you with a detailed account of events, I’m just going to pick out a few other things that stood out, and comment on them in more or less detail.

  • The lifts had plaques on the floor with the day of the week on them, which were presumably switched out every 24 hours [is that a full-time job?] Probably wise, since it’s probably easy to lose track of time completely on an extended cruise.
  • There may have been an incident where someone – let’s not mention her name – was unable to get out of the cabin. Turns out the cabin doors on Anthem open outwards, which, I believe from people who have done this kind of thing before, is not standard.
  • When you’re 100 miles out at sea, there’s not a lot going on. Seriously, I was expecting the ocean to be teeming with life like a Sea World show [future generations of kids! Ask you parents!], but the only whale-watching we got to do was seeing them attack the buffet. We didn’t even get start-studded night-time vistas as it was cloudy. Sort this shit out, Royal Caribbean, for that is how you get one-star reviews on Yelp.
  • The Two70 lounge. Holy IMAX. During the day, you get vistas three-quarters of the way round. At night, the windows turn into, effectively, a single video-unit, perhaps 200 feet across, operating in 12K, onto which exterior scenes or custom projections are displayed. Throw in another half dozen independent screens, which “float” in the air, moving on hydraulics, and you’ve got the potential for a full-on multi-media experience.
  • Which is what Spectra’s Cabaret provides, combined song, dance, aerialists, music and that video system, into something which feels like an hour-long segment of Fake Off. I was sold, from the moment it opened with a full-on Las Vegas show style interpretation of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Somewhere in heaven, Ian Dury is looking down with a bemused smirk.
  • The food was solid, though sometimes required a bit of a hunt – Sunday night took us four venues to find a restaurant. Michael’s Pub was “not serving food on this voyage,” Johnny Rocket’s closed at 5pm and Devinly Decadence – yes, that’s how it’s spelt – has a private party. Still, the Windjammer buffet came to our rescue, and proved more than up to the task.
  • Though the item which will live in our memory longest was the Napoleon pastries. Damn, those things were perfect, and a significant part of the reason why I came home 10 pounds heavier than I left it. Turns out combining the lifestyle of a unemployed sloth with the calorific consumption of a Tour De France cyclist may lead to a weight gain. Who knew?
  • Maybe we should have taken advantage of the more energetic activities available, like the sky-diving simulator, or the FlowRider, a surfing pool where the water is squirted out fast enough, and uphill [those are some powerful pool motors], to create waves on which you can surf. Nah. The latter was much more fun as a spectator sport.
  • It’s hard to get a feel for what the cruise would have been like on a regular cruise. As it was, you were never short of space, could find a seat anywhere, and hardly ever had to queue for longer than seconds. But I’m certain this was not the full 4,900 capacity, and I don’t think I saw anyone under the age of 21. Both those factors would probably make for a radically different experience.

However, while this was a remarkable trip, and one which we’ll remember for a long time, I can’t say I am necessarily sold on the whole cruise thing. Our everyday lives are generally fairly structured and active, while there are certainly things you could do on the ship, it felt strange to have significant stretches of time (typically, bounded by meals) without anything to do. I think, if we were going on a cruise, it would need to be one with frequent stops and shore excursions. Lying on a lounger is all very well, but I tend to the view that holidays should be spent doing things you can’t do at home, rather than doing things you can, just in a different location. A river cruise down the Danube, arriving every day in a different city, would seem more likely than anything involving an extended time at sea.

Besides, I get the feeling that any regular cruise ship – and, in particular, any cruise ship we are able to afford – will likely pale in comparison beside the sleek and luxurious high-tech wonder that unquestionably is the Anthem of the Seas. As far as cruising goes, it’s all downhill from here, folks.