Sarah and Andrew, a British couple, travel to Nigeria where they hope to heal the wounds in their marriage. They check into a beachfront hotel, blissfully ignorant of a war which is raging in the area – a war for oil, where the native people are being murdered to gain access to the black gold which lies beneath their villages. A young girl (who has taken the name Little Bee) and her sister have fled from one of these villages and soldiers are tracking them down. It is on the beach that the African girls cross paths with Sarah and Andrew…and horror unfolds.
Chris Cleave’s novel doesn’t start on the beach, but everything that happens there has a lasting impact on the characters. The novel actually begins two years after the beach incident – Little Bee managed to get to England where she sought asylum and where, within minutes of her arrival, the immigration authorities locked her up in an Immigration Removal Center. Now she has managed to get free of the Center and has traveled on foot to Sarah and Andrew’s home. It is there where the real story unfolds.
That summer – the summer my husband died – we all had identities we were loath to let go of. My son had his Batman costume, I still used my husband’s surname, and Little Bee, though she was relatively safe with us, still clung to the name she had taken in a time of terror. We were exiles from reality, that summer. We were refugees from ourselves. – from Little Bee, page 22 -
Little Bee is a book about two women who unexpectedly find each other through tragedy. It is their stories, told in alternating points of view, which drive the narrative of the novel and reveal the underlying inhumanity of the refugee and asylum system in England.
Cleave’s prose is ironic, at times humorous (although the themes of the novel are anything but funny), and original. When Sarah compares the recent unfolding of the war to that of her child, Charlie (who dresses as Batman throughout the novel), the resultant analogy is a brilliant look at how wars (and children) need our constant attention lest they grow out of control.
The war was four years old. It had started in the same month my son was born, and they’d grown up together. At first both of them were a huge shock and demanded constant attention but as each year went by, they became more autonomous and one could start to take one’s eye off them for extended periods. Sometimes a particular event would cause me momentarily to look at one or the other of them – my son, or the war – with my full attention, and at times like these I would always think, Gosh, haven’t you grown? – from Little Bee, page 33 -
Thematically the novel explores fate and how in an instant our lives can be changed by things not in our control. It also takes a hard look immigration laws, specifically those impacting individuals seeking asylum from brutal governments (which are often militarized). A third theme looks at the choices we make and how those choices impact our futures and the futures of those closest to us. Cleave examines these themes through the unlikely friendship of the two protagonists – Little Bee and Sarah.
One of the problems I had with the book was not so much the story or Cleave’s writing – but the marketing of the book which sets the reader up with certain very high expectations. The book flap reads:
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is truly a special story and we don’t want to spoil it.
And they don’t tell us. So as a reader, we purchase the book with certain expectations. I expected not just a good book, but a book which was going to blow me away; perhaps provide a twist in the plot which would surprise me. That didn’t happen (I actually anticipated how the book HAD to end) and I could not help but feel a little manipulated. I think the publisher did a bit of a disservice to the author by marketing the book the way they did…so I won’t hold it against Cleave.
In fact, this is a good book. It is a meaningful book which is heartbreaking in many ways. Despite revealing the dark side of humanity in his story, Cleave also shows that there are good people in the world. There is light even when there is darkness. The world may have evil, but it also has hope and goodness. My favorite character in the book was not either of the women, but Charlie – the little boy who poses as a superhero. Not only does Charlie represent the innocence in the world, but he is also symbolic of future hope. His child’s voice was endearing and honest…a refreshing glimmer of goodness in a novel which looks at betrayal.
Little Bee is not an easy read, but it is a book I am glad I read.
Recommended for book groups, and for readers who enjoy literary fiction.