Turning to the first page in Chris Cleave’s book, Little Bee, is like entering an utterly different world. A world that appears to be much like this one, but at the very core it is entrenched with nuances requiring you to peel each layer back, and to do this carefully, individually, and you must do this by first listening.
The heart and soul of this book is undeniable and the true accomplishment lies in the voice of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee girl. Little Bee, who at the age of 16, after two years of confinement, has been released from a British Detention Center with nothing more than a clear plastic bag filled with scraps of other peoples lives. The book does not move forward in a linear fashion, but rather the first half explains its way to the middle by moving backwards, and the second half moves into the direction of the future. This manner of non-traditional story telling is one of the many reasons this book will captivate you. While our lives may move in a forward direction, our stories do not, and Chris Cleave captures this expertly. Sometimes the beginning happens to start in the middle, and sometimes the end of a story is our new beginning. During her confinement, charity boxes filled with clothing and miscellaneous items were given to the detention center, meant to be divided among the detainees. These detainees who were waiting to be released. Waiting to be a free person. Like a prison, the detention center was suffocating, immoveable in its routine. That is where the story begins, after all the years of waiting. Little Bee’s personality of unwavering strength and lightning bolt wit will take you by surprise in the most marvelous way. Even in grief, she finds comfort in satirical humor. She has learned the English language from reading newspapers, and so her vernacular and eloquent speech reads quite proper and straight forward. This is the approach to which Little bee regards everything, and is a tribute to her great efforts of speaking like everyone in England, in hopes to be swallowed in the crowd of her new country.
As the second narrative voice, a woman named Sarah O’Rourke gives a wholly dissimilar perspective from Little Bee’s. Her voice carries an often-tiresome tone to it, with boredom creeping around the edges. Sarah at initial impression appears transparent, and superficial. Her daily life is consumed with working for a posh magazine, having a somewhat trite affair while being an unhappily married suburban wife. But it is her overwhelming love for her charming son, Charlie, that keeps the reader from feeling disconnected from the varying perspective of our first narrator Little Bee. Charlie is the glue that keeps Sarah together. Charlie is offered as an anecdote to the book, a little boy who believes that he is batman, filling in the perforations of the heartache leaking from the pages of this story. His constant refusal to remove his batman suit is due to his fear that he will lose his powers, weakening him from being able to fight the, “baddies”, of the world. His examination of life offers a sense of mortality to living, which is both beguiling and self-effacing. Like most children at the age of four, he has wrapped himself in a warm and reassuring bubble, a protective sphere that keeps the, “baddies,” away and gives him the title of being a hero everyday. The book celebrates this, gives a subtle and understanding nudge of reminder that we are only children once and at any age, people will use the tools at hand to cope. Little Bee, as both the story and character, is an achievement to Cleave’s ability to hold both darkness and beauty in the palm of his hand, and he has succeeded in this by making hope within reach.
The lives of these two female characters collide one afternoon on the shores of Nigeria, set years before, and each there for the most diverse and life altering purposes. It is the decision made that day on the beach that becomes the changing point, transforming their lives, and shifting the direction of both women’s future. What most books seem to be deficient of lately is a heartbreaking quality that probes at your intellect and challenges the way you identify your life, and everything you know to be true. Pain is something that is not always easily simplified, and the subsequent effects are sometimes a shock to the system. Little Bee brings to light the decisions that we make, choices forcing us to keep our humanity inside of us. And because this is a story about survival, it delves deep into a dark sense of veracity that says, sometimes you have to kill parts of yourself to really live.
This is a story that will reach out from the pages and pull you in. You will find that once you’re two chapters in, the words are sticking to you, to the inside of your stomach, inside of your head, and on the tip of your tongue. Little Bee, both the character and the book in its entirety, gives a sense of all the layers that can exist in one person. That we are all ripping apart, and putting ourselves back together. And each new chapter is like a lifetime, revealing all the disappointments one can fit inside themselves. Chris Cleave has cleverly orchestrated many of life’s musings into a book that withholds sanctimonious lecturing. While this is a story with many political attachments, a story about Nigerian refugee’s seeking solace from the oil wars in their country, it has replaced preaching by identifying with human nature’s sense of the disorganized chaos at our center, that has us clamoring for a solution at our time of deepest dissonance.
Sometimes in order to survive, choices are to be made by a standard of what you will regret less. There is pain that comes along with humanity; otherwise we wrinkle up like prunes, all the life dried out of our souls. This book is a masterpiece of intertwining two completely different lives and finding completely compelling methods to tell each point of view. Little Bee is a story that will never leave you. And every sentence that you read will feel like a whisper, something poignant and affecting that needs to be spoken in the lightest register, in hope that you will feel it’s magic.