Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008
When you pick up a copy of Little Bee and read the dust jacket it doesn’t tell you much.
“We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.”
Is that enough to draw you in? I have been seeing this book everywhere and just the bits I heard about it had me intrigued.
Little Bee is a young refugee from Nigeria. She escapes to England, lives in a detention center for two years and searches for a white couple, Sarah and Andrew, she and her sister met on the beach in Nigeria. The girls were running from their village and the atrocities that happened there. It is the storyof this young girl’s past, her search for safety and the friendship that grows between Little Bee and Sarah and Andrew’s son, Charlie. Little Bee is much more than that but to say anymore would give the story away. The publicists who wrote the dust jacket were right. You need to read the novel and find out what happens for yourself.
My one concern was the idea of a white male journalist giving voice to the two female characters, a young Nigerian girl and a white British magazine editor. Cleave was brave to take this on and did a superb job. I loved Little Bee, her strength, her heart and her intelligence.
This is what it would be like, you see, if I had to stop and explain every little thing to the girls back home. I would have to explain linoleum and bleach and soft-core pornography and the shape-changing magic of the British one pound coin, as if all of these everyday things were very wonderful mysteries. And very quickly my own story would get lost in this great ocean of wonders because it would seem as if your country was an enchanted federation of miracles and my own story within it was really very small and unmagical. But with you it is much easier because I say to you, look, on the morning they released us, the duty officer at the immigration center was staring at a photo of a topless girl in the newspaper. And you understand the situation right away. That’s the reason I spent two years learning the Queen’s English, so that you and I could speak like this without an interruption. Pages 5/6
Truly, there is no flag for us floating people. We are millions but we are not a nation. We cannot stay together. Maybe we get together in ones and twos, for a day or a month or even a year, but then the wind changes and carries the hope away. Death came and I left in fear. Now all I have is my shame and the memory of bright colors and Yevette’s laugh. Sometimes I feel as lonely as the Queen of England. Page 80.
Thoughts on refugees, resource extraction and racism spill from these pages and yet this is a quiet story, never heavy handed. I will be thinking about it for a long time.
From Chris Cleaves notes: “Thank you for reading this story. The characters in it are imagined, although the action takes place in a reality which is intended to call to mind our own. ”
Visit Cleave’s website and find out more about this wonderful book.