[1 February 2009]
Little Bee by Chris Cleave is a stellar work of literary fiction written from the first-person limited point of view. Shifting back and forth between two main characters, Little Bee and Sarah Summers, the novel begins in the middle of the story when Little Bee is illegally released from a prison outside of London after two years of incarceration for attempting to sneak into the country. Perhaps one of the greatest successes of the novel is that it brings to life the harsh reality of British prison camps for illegal aliens, which have received little attention from the mainstream press.
Without any papers, legal documentation or identification, Little Bee is forced to visit the only person she knows in England—Sarah Summers. Using alternating points of view and moving through various periods of time, Cleaves tells a story about courage, cowardice, determination and international indifference. Sarah Summers and her husband, Andrew O’Rourke, met Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria. Having grown apart in their marriage, Andrew and Sarah traveled to Nigeria to get away from city life. Inadvertently, the couple stumbles across Little Bee and her sister while taking a romantic walk on the beach, only to be surrounded by a group of mercenaries intent on killing the girls.
Hired by an unknown oil company to “clear the land” above a large oil reserve, these men are apparently drunk on human blood and enjoy killing for its own sake. In a gruesome twist, the soldiers agree to let the girls live if Andrew will cut off his middle finger. As Andrew is unable to comply with their terms, Sarah picks up a machete and slices off her own finger—effectively dooming their marriage. The soldiers initially take both girls away, but in the end spare Little Bee. When she appears at Sarah and Andrew’s household outside of London, a series of tragic, beautiful and emotionally turbulent events unfold which will change all of their lives forever. In a moment of sheer genius, it is Little Bee who ends up helping the family to heal after their tragedy, rather than the other way around.
The two protagonists, Sarah and Little Bee, become increasingly close friends as the novel continues, leaving the reader saddened and mildly betrayed when Little Bee is ultimately deported and sent to a Nigerian prison—not only silencing her voice, but erasing an important and unknown chapter in Nigeria’s history.
This novel worked on a variety of different levels. For the casual reader, there is beautiful tension created using temporal and point of view shifts, keeping the reader engaged by only hinting at cataclysmic events that will be detailed in later chapters. There is also great tension between Little Bee and Lawrence, Sarah’s lover, who is determined to get rid of the new intrusion at all costs—even if it means reporting her to the authorities. The scenes of violence are graphic and shocking; they arrest the attention of a reader and are not easily forgotten.
A gut-wrenchingly disgusting and simultaneously beautiful passage describes one of the bloodthirsty mercenaries with a putrefied neck wound ending his life by swimming into the ocean at sunset. Cleaves initially strips the mercenary of his humanity, both through his actions and his appearance, then restores it as he approaches death. Reminiscent of the novels of J.M. Coetzee, the characters are complex, as are the situations in which they find themselves. Dealing with issues of language, translation, globalization, race, gender and class, it is not a surprise that after a successful run in the UK, Bond Street Books is offering this reprint version.
As stated above, the scant attention that British internment camps and modern day displacement have received from the media is one of the major successes of the book. Like many African American narratives about displacement and alienation (Nella Larsen’s Passing immediately springs to mind), this book brings these issues squarely into our backyard by subtly dropping in pop culture and news references which give it a timeliness that I, for one, was not used to reading about in these types of narratives.
These moments, however, never come across as anything other than the natural part of Little Bee’s journey into an unfamiliar culture and moment in time. If there are instances of melodrama, they are moments of joy, sadness and love that an impossible and frighteningly real scenario would bring about between two people in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Ugliness and beauty, for Cleaves, seem inextricable in this wonderfully crafted narrative of displacement, identity and humanity (or lack thereof).