“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. Simon and Schuster, Inc. 2008. 266 pages
This is an advisory: “Little Bee” is not a novel for the escapist reader. The story, set in an oil-rich delta in Nigeria and a British suburb, took me outside my comfort zone as it explored cultural dissidence and “the disgrace of not discharging a human obligation.” It is a story of shame, horror, strength, and hope.
The work of London journalist Chris Cleave, the novel combines fiction and well researched facts related to oil-development and related atrocities as well as the skewed British bureaucratic system confronting immigrant and asylum seekers.
Since its publication in England (under the title “The Other Hand”), it gained popularity more by word of mouth than by marketing. Now reprinted in the United States, Canada, and twelve other countries, it is under option as a film and the winner of numerous awards. It is also a best seller. Attempts to describe it without revealing its startling plot could cause it to sound political and insipid. In its own way, it is political. It is definitely not insipid.
The story: two affluent professional writers, an educated British couple who need to patch up their marriage, go to Nigeria on a freebie tourist-board-offered holiday. The wife, recently caught in infidelity, hopes to rekindle the marriage by traveling to someplace “different” and exciting. Both she and her depressed, mistrustful husband are unaware an oil war is raging around the resort. The oil-rich Nigerian government downplays the atrocities and few witnesses survive to tell of the ethnic violence.
On what starts as a romantic interlude on the beach at sunrise, the couple encounters two terrified teenage girls fleeing assassins. The couple must react immediately to a physical and moral dilemma of tragic consequence. Their lives are further shattered when, in a strange circle of events, one of the girls, Little Bee, ends up in a razor-wire enclosed refugee center near their home in England. The story heats up when their lives once again collide.
The novel is well written but heavy on foreshadowing doom. I wanted the author to quit hinting and get on with it. With the exception of two teenagers, Little Bee and Yevette, a Jamaican refuge, there are few likeable characters. I found myself skimming sections not written in their voices. Little Bee’s perspective on life in England, her use and misuse of the English language, and her descriptions of and fondness for the Queen are both telling and humorous. Her observations on “civilized” English life are downright funny.
After finishing the novel, I put is aside a few days, then reread it, this time more deliberately.
Knowing the story’s harrowing outcome, I could read with less dread and more appreciation for the author’s skills.
Until reading “Little Bee”, I thought asylum seekers, like the character Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” were safe once they reached the sanctuary of an established government. I did not question this.
I came away from this courageous novel with a new awareness of ethical global issues and the human obligations we all share. I continue to think about “Little Bee.”