In this information age, we are all aware of the world’s horrors. Villages razed to the ground, in the name of oil. Starving, swollen-bellied children too frail to brush away the flies that feast on them.
We’ve read these stories in newspapers, watched these images on television. Maybe even seen or experienced them firsthand. Unfortunately this deluge of poignant sights and sounds tends to have a desensitizing effect. It’s hard to think of the sea of sadness as consisting of individuals.
Chris Cleaves’ Little Bee, the follow-up to his best-selling debut Incendiary, turns up the volume of one of the voices among these masses – that of a Nigerian 16-year-old girl who seeks asylum in the UK. He pairs her with her superficially polar opposite – an upper-middle-class Englishwoman – and builds around the two women an affecting, often humorous tale that never sinks under the weight of the heavy matters it addresses.
To even basically summarize the plot of Little Bee would spoil its magic, so let’s leave it at this: Two women – Little Bee and Sarah Summers – meet on a Nigerian beach, each there due to insurmountable forces. A terrible decision is made and both women’s lives are changed forever. Two years later they meet again, in a quiet, English suburb, and are forced to confront the consequences of that fateful first encounter.
That sounds rather ominous, and indeed, the topics Cleave touches on are no laughing matter. Oil wars, refugees, the failings of the British immigration system, racism, rape, depression, adultery, suicide, murder, death, grief. All can be found between the cheery orange covers of this book. Yet the tone remains hopeful – these issues are mostly implied rather than gratuitously described, which allows the reader to understand the devastation without losing sight of the individuals.
For, first and foremost, Little Bee is a story about people, and Cleave has brought all his characters to life with careful attention to the way they speak and think. Little Bee and Sarah share storytelling duties, in alternating chapters, and it is immediately evident who is telling her story – which becomes their story.
Little Bee is engaging from the first sentence – “Most days I wish I was a British Pound instead of an African girl” – and has a lyrical way with English, intending it to be her defense against her foreign surroundings.
Unfortunately her English can also undermine her, as when she accidentally likens a taxi driver to male genitalia, thinking she is complimenting him on his impressive shock of hair. Little Bee’s cadence reflects her strong spirit; even when she casually considers the myriad of ways that she would kill herself under necessary circumstances, she does not seem self-pitying, only practical. Her attitude is the same as the novel’s: “If I could not smile my situation would be even more serious”.
Sarah, a beautiful woman with a good job as a magazine editor-in-chief and seemingly picture-perfect family, is eloquent, but her precise way with English only highlights her turmoil (“… here I still was, dry-eyed, with the whole house reeking of gin and lilies”).
Cleaves demonstrates that while these women may seem very different, they can connect profoundly – in the way that we as readers can empathize with both of them despite cultural, social and linguistic gulfs. And although the women are sympathetic, neither is a saint, which adds to their realism.
While Little Bee and Sarah have near-perfected their inner and outer composure, Sarah’s 4-year-old son Charlie aka Batman, is the raw emotional core of the novel, voicing and acting out his feelings with abandon, whether sadness or euphoria, in a childish chatter that enriches the novel’s linguistic melody. He provides some of the most uplifting moments, and a few of the most heart-rending.
Nuanced characterization extends to minor characters, who never act as you would expect. There are no real villains in this story, besides circumstances and political systems. “Simple” farmers are compassionate towards illegal immigrants, offering food and shelter, at risk to themselves. Sarah’s well-educated lover immediately jumps to conclusions about Little Bee’s intentions, in line with the inherent problems with the British immigration system for which he works. Even the most obviously sinister character, a ruthless Nigerian gang leader, displays humanity.
The narrative reads effortlessly although it quickly switches between the past, present and future, circling around the full disclosure of the pivotal event that first brought Little Bee and Sarah together. When the revelation is finally delivered, it is done so in a masterfully smooth way in which the two women’s perspectives blur and overlap, panoramically conveying the event as if through a swiveling camera.
Names play a key role in the novel, tying into themes of identity, a pertinent matter for refugees attempting to belong in the UK – and for every human being negotiating their place in the world. Little Bee, Sarah and Charlie all have at least two names and a persona for each. Little Bee renames herself as such to distance herself from the past; she toys with another when she considers moving on again. Sarah is Sarah Summers professionally, and Sarah O’Rourke as a wife and mother, roles she tries to compartmentalize. A fellow refugee of Little Bee’s refuses to share her name, finding it risky, and in doing so, seems to lose herself. She becomes like those among the nameless ocean of refugees that can be difficult to distinguish between.
Little Bee is not going to change the world. It may spur you to learn something more about the refugee crisis, even take action. It may not. What it will do is draw you into a world both heartbreaking and comic, with captivating characters, a clever use of language and a positive view of mankind against all the odds.
by Chris Cleave
Simon and Schuster, 288 pages
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