Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Reviewed by Tiffany Hoo
The novel revolves around Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee, and Sarah O’Rourke, a magazine editor from Surrey, who became inextricably bound to one another following a brief encounter they shared in their past. The women have met once two years ago when Sarah and her husband, Andrew, were on a holiday in Niger Delta in an attempt to salvage their marriage following Sarah’s act of infidelity. The then 14-year-old Little Bee and her older sister, Niruka, were on the run from soldiers who burned down their village and were determined to have no witnesses to the incident. The two young girls sought protection from the couple but were eventually captured by their pursuers and that is where our story takes an unexpected twist.
We flash forward to two years into the future, where Little Bee has been illegally released from a British Immigration detention centre after a fellow refugee performs sexual favours for their detention officer. With her newfound freedom, the Nigerian refugee travels to Sarah’s home though it was not known to the latter initially. It is only upon the suicide of Adam over the guilt of his and Sarah’s tainted past that Little Bee reveals herself to the magazine editor and offers to care for Charlie, the couple’s 4-year-old son. The shattered Sarah relents with Little Bee’s offer of help.
Although one may find this to be a rather dark read to take up, it cannot be denied that this is a profounding tale. It explores the loss of innocence and the subsequent effects of the globalisation which are hardly confined to Achebe’s Nigeria of yore or to Britain’s “civilizing” mission. The author, Chris Cleave, attempts to look at this scenario from a different light. Instead of focusing on the postcolonial guilt and the African angst, Cleave uses his words to make readers ponder their views of civility and ethical choice.
Many may find the character of Sarah O’Rourke bland at first glance, but as the story progresses we see her blossoming under Cleave’s craftful words. However, it is the character of Little Bee that draws readers into the story. As she navigates the dehumanizing indifference of immigration detention with her little competence in English, this young refugee tugs at the reader’s conscience.
Although the tale does leave readers on a bitter note as we reach the conclusion of the story, Cleave finds a way to shed light on even the darkest of situations. The sight of Charlie playing happily with a group of Nigerian children sends a message to us that though we may not be able to change the present we know, hope still lies with the next generation. All we need is optimism in order for humanity to triumph.