British author Chris Cleave's novel "Little Bee" is a brilliant, piercing novel about a 16-year-old Nigerian refugee and her unlikely bond with a grieving English magazine editor.
by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 271 pp., $24
Every now and then, you come across a character in a book whose personality is so salient and whose story carries such devastating emotional force it’s as if she becomes a fixed part of your consciousness.
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So it is with the charmingly named title character in Chris Cleave’s brilliant and unforgettable “Little Bee,” the tale of a precocious 16-year-old girl who escapes the oil-fueled civil strife of the lush Nigerian Delta region, only to stumble across equally conflicted emotional terrain in the concrete jungle that is London.
In a story sequined with lustrous turns of phrase, spanning two continents and driven by real-life global concerns, “Little Bee” retraces the complicated relationship between the refugee girl and an unfulfilled English magazine editor, Sarah O’Rourke.
Sarah and her writer husband, Andrew, first crossed paths with Little Bee and her sister Nkiruka while vacationing in a section of Nigeria that borders coveted delta oil fields. They had the poor fortune of being there when armed men paid by petroleum companies were annihilating villages to make it easier to drill for the black gold beneath them. The girls managed to flee when their village was targeted.
A fateful beachside encounter involving them, the English couple and a band of village-plundering murderers changes their lives forever.
Luckily — or unluckily, depending on your view — a wallet left behind by Andrew after that bloody incident becomes Little Bee’s singular link to the West after she finally makes her way to Great Britain. But first, like many illegal immigrants to the U.K., she gets thrown into a refugee detention center near London.
It is here that Cleave, a 35-year-old British writer of astoundingly elegant, piercing and witty prose (check out 2005’s “Incendiary,” a novel written as an open letter to Osama bin Laden), ushers us into Little Bee’s off-the-wall psychological world.
Here’s how Little Bee describes the weird experience of teaching herself to speak proper English, a far cry from the messier, more colorful Nigerian version:
“Learning the Queen’s English is like scrubbing off the bright red varnish from your toenails, the morning after a dance.”
But for each cute aside there are pages full of grief, as Little Bee explains her curious station as a girl without papers, and therefore without a country.
“Truly there is no flag for us floating people,” she tells us. “We are millions but we are not a nation.”
The refugee women Little Bee befriends during detention share a sad, common story: Their flight from their homelands is always a tale of exploitation, persecution and violence. Little Bee finds strength in memories of better days back home, before her own troubles began.
But Sarah O’Rourke, who narrates her own chapters in the novel, has problems too.
Sarah, Andrew and their nutty, Batman-worshipping son have settled in the “purgatory” of a London suburb called Kingston-upon-Thames, and in a spiritual sense, Sarah is among the “floating people” herself. “How did so many of us end up so very far downwind?” she muses.
Much worse, as we learn early on, Andrew has committed suicide and she’s making funeral arrangements when Little Bee, newly released from detention with Andrew’s British ID in hand, unexpectedly knocks on the door. Suddenly that nightmare holiday in Nigeria collides with her present-day reality.
Cleave is brave to give the struggles of an instantly sympathetic African refugee equal weight with the worries of an adulterous, angst-ridden suburbanite who will not immediately endear herself to readers. Their crossed paths and budding friendship, along with some rather extraordinary dilemmas that result, ring true, though.
But what elevates this novel even further is Cleave’s forceful call for all of us, the floating masses of a globalized, socially isolating modern world, to look after one other.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.