Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave

Thanks to my friend Beth Spring for recommending Little Bee (or, in the U.K., The Other Hand). It's the best novel I've read so far this year.

First published in 2008 and now available in paperback, the story concerns a teen-aged Nigerian girl who calls herself Little Bee. Fearing imprisonment or death, she seeks asylum in the U.K., is intercepted at sea, and is thrown into an immigration detention center.

The story also concerns a British couple, Andrew and Sarah, both journalists. Having briefly crossed paths with Little Bee while on holiday in Nigeria, they meet up with her again in England two years later. Sarah befriends her - and finds her whole life being called into question.

If you want to know more than that, you'll just have to read the book yourself. Much of its charm is in the way the author gradually unpacks and enriches the story, and I would not be doing you a favor by telling you what happens.

As a best book must be, Little Bee is excellent in many categories:
  • Exquisite writing, right from the start: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming."
  • Rich characterization of the two first-person narrators, Little Bee and Sarah. An interesting supporting cast as well, especially Batman, age 4, who removes his bat suit only at bath time.
  • Conflict and suspense. Little Bee is in danger, and every character faces a moral dilemma. Batman neatly divides the world into "goodies" and "baddies," but things are less clear for the others.
  • Significance. Without ever preaching, the book looks at immigration policy, journalistic responsibility, and selfishness vs. self-sacrifice.
  • Comic relief. And yet the author manages to inject humor into the darkest situations - not inappropriately, but as a survival technique. "I don't get you," a man says to Little Bee. "If you understood how serious your situation is, I don't think you'd smile." Little Bee shrugs. "If I could not smile," she answers, "I think my situation would be even more serious."
Above all, the book is simply a joy to read. Take this paragraph, for example, where Sarah encourages Little Bee to go with the family to London. "It's a beautiful day, we'll laze about on the South Bank and just watch the world go by.... Come on, it'll be an adventure for you," she says. Little Bee thinks:
What is an adventure? That depends on where you are starting from. Little girls in your country, they hide in the gap between the washing machine and the refrigerator and they make believe they are in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around them. Me and my sister, we used to hide in a gap in the jungle, with green snakes and monkeys all around us, and make believe that we had a washing machine and a refrigerator. You live in a world of machines and you dream of things with beating hearts. We dream of machines, because we see where beating hearts have left us.
To learn about the author, Chris Cleave, or to read the first chapter of Little Bee, check out the author's website here.

No comments:

Post a Comment