2008; 271 pages. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Middlebrow Lit; Book Club Book; Contemporary Literature. Laurels : #1 NY Times Best Seller; shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Awards, nominated for a 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Editors’ Choice - NY Times Book Review, Indie Next pick for February 2009, and a few more. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
It really was an odd occurrence. A 12-year-old African girl, Little Bee, crosses paths with a career-oriented Englishwoman, Sarah O’Rourke, on a beach outside a Nigerian resort. It's a moment of deep crisis for both parties, and a time of great loss as well.
But life moves on, and that was two years ago and far away. Today, in her house in Kingston-Upon-Thames on the outskirts of London, Sarah is trying to come to grips with a new loss, while struggling to keep the tragic details from traumatizing her 4-year-old son, Charlie.
So imagine her surprise when Little Bee shows up on her doorstep, asking for help. What are the odds of their paths crossing this second time, on a different continent, with both of their lives once again undergoing desperate upheavals?
Well, the odds aren’t quite as long as it would seem. Somehow, Little Bee has Sarah’s husband’s driver’s license with her, which lists their home address.
What’s To Like...
Little Bee (aka “The Other Hand” in the UK) is first and foremost a study in the contrasts between the two main characters. In a broad view, this includes “rich vs poor”, “white vs black”, “resident vs illegal”, and “African vs European”. These differences are intensified by the narrator alternating between Sarah and Little Bee with each new chapter, and it is interesting to see how each of them tries, with varying success, to understand the other.
The underlying theme is the horrors faced by refugees seeking asylum in the UK, in particular those fleeing the “oil wars” that brutalized Nigeria beginning in the 1990’s. But getting to England is hardly the end of their woe, as Chris Cleave gives insight into their lives in Immigration Removal Centers where, after much suffering, things usually end with deportation to their home countries and certain death.
The writing style is unique. The story opens with Bee going to meet Sarah, and with the reader thinking “WTF is going on?” Chris Cleave then fills in the backstory, seemingly one incident per chapter. That may sound clunky but it works to perfection here. There are only a few characters to keep track of, which also seemed unusual. You’ll love meeting 4-year-old Charlie, who has a Batman complex and tries to reduce every problem to a “baddies vs goodies” situation that can be effortlessly remedied by a superhero.
The book is written in “English Lite”, meaning there weren’t many instances of spellings like programme/program and gray/grey. But I had to think twice about what a “glasshouse” and "windscreen wipers” were. I also enjoyed the “Notes” and “Discussion Guide” sections at the back of the book. It was enlightening to read about a true incident that inspired Cleave to write Little Bee.
In subject matter, the book reminded me of Dave Eggers’ What Is The What (reviewed here), and even the schmaltzy movie Driving Miss Daisy. But the tone here is markedly darker and cussing, adult situations, including rape and torture abound. Nevertheless, the ending is superb and sobering and for me, a bit of a surprise.
“You don’t ask for advice, Sarah.”
“No. Not ever. Not about things that matter, anyway. You ask whether your tights look right with your shoes. You ask which bracelet suits your wrist. You’re not asking for input. You’re asking your admirers to prove they’re paying attention.”
“Am I really that bad?”
“Actually you’re worse. Because if I do ever tell you gold looks nice with your skin, you make a special point of wearing silver.” (pg. 118)
“A dog must be a dog and a wolf must be a wolf, that is the proverb in my country.”
“That’s beautiful,” said Sarah.
“Actually, that is not the proverb in my country.”
“No! Why would we have a proverb with wolves in it? We have two hundred proverbs about monkeys, three hundred about cassava. We talk about what we know. But I have noticed, in your country, I can say anything so long as I say that is the proverb in my country. Then people will nod their heads and look very serious.” (pg. 180)
Kewlest New Word…
Vespertine (adj.) : relating to, occurring, or active in the evening.
Others : Y-Fronts (n.).
“Charlie has extraordinary eyes, doesn’t he? (…) They’re like ecosystems in aspic.”. (pg. 136)
I don’t really have any quibbles about Little Bee. Some reviewers think the characters are too contrived. I find that absurd. Of course they’re contrived. That’s why they call it “fiction”.
I’ve been wanting to read a Chris Cleave book for quite some time, but all the copies of his books/e-books seem to be always checked out at my library. I assumed that was because they’re a popular “Book Club book”, akin to The Kite Runner or Water For Elephants or even, oog, Marley And Me. I’m not a big fan of that genre. They tend to be heavy on the drama, and light on thrills and spills.
But Little Bee breaks the mold. Yes, there’s still a lot of emphasis on personal relationships. But there’s also blood and violence, and a fair amount of human suffering. Heck, if this is the norm for Book Club fare, I might even consider joining one.
8½ Stars. A powerful-yet-short book that'll challenge your preconceptions about illegal immigrants, whether you're living in the USA or the UK. And if you happen to be in a book club, shake up things by suggesting Little Bee to the group.