Chris Cleave’s Little Bee

by Jess

Hello, dear friends! I’m not dead, if you were worried. Also, if you weren’t worried, I’m still not dead. No, turns out that packing up; moving out; driving 18 and a half hours; house hunting; moving in; setting up utilities and Internet, etc., etc.; flying back to Small Town, USA, to pick up the Little; flying home; and somehow trying to, you know, sleep and eat, takes up a great deal of time which can therefore not be devoted to blogging.

Anyhow, I picked up a copy of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee when I was at the airport, drawn in by the triumvirate of orgasmic review blurbs, the publishers note on the back informing us that they can’t tell us what happens in the book because “the magic is in how the story unfolds” (which of course is rubbish, and I’m going to tell you everything that happens), and the photo on the first page of the barefooted little boy in an oversized Batman costume.

I thought the boy would be Little Bee, but I was wrong; Little Bee is the self-assumed name of one of the book’s two narrators, a girl who flees to England to escape the violence in her home country of Nigeria. Little Bee utterly steals the show. Cleave has done a masterful job of capturing her voice and her passionate character. She sees beauty (though always tinged with sadness) in the most ordinary things, like drinking a cup of tea, which she has never tasted before, though it is grown in her country and exported. She says:

Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitter and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist. I have heard that your country drinks more tea than any other. How sad that must make you — like children who long for absent mothers. I am sorry.

Little Bee is a survivor. Her village was destroyed by men from the oil company, and everyone was killed who could testify to what had been done. Little Bee’s life is spared because of a chance encounter she has with an English couple on holiday in Nigeria, and so she sets out to find them, hitching a ride in the cargo hold of a ship. Once in England, she is incarcerated in a detention center for two years, and the book begins just as she is being let out.

One of my favorite parts of Little Bee’s narration is the way she processes her new environment by imagining how she would describe it to the girls back home, who function as a sort of Greek chorus in the novel.

If I was telling this story to the girls back home they would be asking me, How can a table be made of coffee and what is this thing called velvet and how come that woman you were staying with did not keep her wood in a pile at the side of the house like everybody else? How come she left it lying all over her floor, was she very lazy? And I would have to tell them: A coffee table is not made out of coffee, and velvet is a fabric as soft as the underside of infant clouds, and the wood on Sarah’s floor was not firewood, it was a Swedish-engineered floor with three-strip antique lacquer and minimum 3mm real wood veneer certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being manufactured using ethical forestry practices, and I know this because I saw a floor just like it advertised in the magazine that was underneath the coffee table and which concerned beautiful homes. And the girls from back home, their eyes would go wide and they would say, Weh, because now they would understand that I had finally arrived in a place beyond the end of the world — a place where wood was made by machines — and they would be wondering what sorcery I survived next.

The other narrator of the novel is the wife of the English couple who saved Little Bee’s life, Sarah. Sarah is just dreadful. She’s having an affair with a man named Lawrence, who is even more dreadful, and in Chapter 2 her husband Andrew commits suicide. The little Batman from the photo is their son Charlie who refuses to take off his costume for the better part of half a year. Got all that? Anyway, the novel’s tension really slows down when Sarah’s at the helm. She’s always saying things like, “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop. Oh look at me, I’m all over the place.” On the one hand, this is a totally understandable response for a woman who’s just lost her husband to suicide. On the other, she doesn’t really seem that broken up about it all, since Lawrence comes to stay just a few days after the funeral, and then she starts moaning about how the fashion magazine she edits doesn’t do anything to make the world a better place. I don’t know, it’s all just very uneven and rather trite, and Lawrence in particular is shallow and poorly written. She shapes up toward the end, but thank God the narration continues to switch back to Little Bee, who keeps us afloat.

That said, I appreciate Cleave’s efforts here to tell a powerful story grounded in reality. There’s a great deal of subtext about story (Little Bee tells us that all of the immigrants’ stories begin with the men came and they…) and Cleave has said the book is about “the horror of being alive in a world where atrocities happen.” In fact, it was the true story of an Angolan man named Manuel Bravo that inspired Cleave to write Little Bee. He tells the story in the Q&A at the end of the paperback edition. Bravo and his family fled to England and claimed asylum on the grounds that they’d be killed if they were deported home (the same as Little Bee). After four years, he and his 13-year-old son were seized in a raid and incarcerated in a detention center. They were told they would be deported to Angola the next morning. That night, Bravo took his own life by hanging himself in a stairwell because he was aware that unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, so he took his life to save his son. His last words to his son were, “Be brave. Work hard. Do well at school.”

In sum, this is a good book. It didn’t blow me away, as one blurb promised, and I don’t know that I’d call it “searingly eloquent,” as another did, and I’d certainly take issue with Booklist‘s pronouncement that “this is a novel as resplendent and menacing as life itself” (what does that even mean?), but I’d agree with The New York Times Book Review, which calls it “an affecting story of human triumph.” I’d read it, if I were you, but I’d recommend picking it up from the library and saving your $15 to donate to a humanitarian organization.