Little Bee by Chris Cleave was picked for my online book club’s March selection. It’s been on my radar for a while, but bells and whistles sounded when a friend said she recommended it to her book club, and offered to buy everyone a copy of the book because it wasn’t yet out in paperback.
Let me just get this out of the way: I loved Little Bee.
Little Bee is told from two points of view: Little Bee’s, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who has fled to England, and Sarah’s, a middle class white woman whose husband has just committed suicide. The story is doled out in such a way that the reader gets anxious about what must have happened on the beach in Nigeria. All we know is that Sarah is missing a finger, her husband’s committed suicide, and somehow Little Bee is involved.
Cleave seems to envelop the reader in Little Bee and Sarah’s world. We can hear Little Bee’s thoughts as she is constantly plotting how she would kill herself “in case the men come suddenly”. We can see the juxtaposition between Sarah seeing the world as shades of gray, and her son, who constantly wears a Batman costume, who sees the world as made up of “goodies and baddies”. We can see the reality of Little Bee’s native country, as she imagines how she would explain things to her friends back home.
Where I think the author excels is in getting the reader to examine their own humanity. What would you give up for someone else’s life? When put in this situation, a person learns their character, and in one character’s case in this book, found they came up short.
Here’s a quote from The Neverending Story (the movie) that seems apropos to Little Bee:
“Next is the Magic Mirror Gate! Atreyu has to face his true self!”
“So what? That won’t be too hard for him.”
“Ah! That’s what EVERYONE thinks! The kind people find that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming!”
Morality, or the lack thereof, while not overt in Little Bee, is startlingly present. Sarah is morally ambiguous, as she will save someone’s life but refuses to end her extramarital affair. Little Bee is not without moral ambiguity, as she sees someone hurting themself, but comes to their aid a little too late. I think England (and any country that offers asylum) has become calloused, as what Little Bee went through in Nigeria isn’t bad enough (watching her village be massacred and her sister raped and murdered) to offer her asylum. Little Bee is a “drain on resources”, and while England talks a big talk about offering asylum, as Cleave points out, if the text book given to immigrants to prepare for their citizenship test in the UK, Life in the United Kingdom, is riddled with typographical errors and inaccuracies, then how earnest can they really be about offering asylum?
Another aspect I loved about the book was Sarah and Andrew’s marriage. Cleave is able to make you see how consumed Sarah and Andrew were with each other, and then how they deteriorated to strangers.
Whenever I need to stop and remind myself how much I once loved Andrew, I only need to think about this. That the ocean covers seven tenths of the earth’s surface, and yet my husband could make me not notice it.
Within the first month, I’d known he wasn’t the right man. After that, it’s the growing sense of dissatisfaction that keeps one awake at night. The brain refusing to let go of those alternative lives the might have been.
I found Little Bee to be incredibly moving and profound. If forced to confront who you are, who you’ve become, would you run screaming? We don’t always know what little moment will define us, but we will, ultimately, be defined.
Rating: 90 out of 100
Visit Chris Cleave at www.ChrisCleave.com.
Book source: I bought this book myself.