March 2009

Erin McKnight


Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Inside the vibrant, some might argue ostentatious, front cover of Little Bee rests a plea almost wistful in its phrasing: We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it... Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds. Having read the book -- and fully attesting to the spell it casts -- this reviewer is in a quandary: how much can be shared of Chris Cleave’s triumphant novel in order to entice the reader, without subduing the story’s majestic appeal and dampening an artistic experience best described as mesmerizing? The solution seems to be to demur and appraise; to present both a short challenge and a longer “spoiler-alert” reflection on this remarkable tale.

The charge, then: buy this book. Resist opening it until you are ready to start reading, for once you begin you’ll find yourself unable to stop. Don’t bother searching for a quiet place, because your imagination’s walls will have slipped away by the first page’s end. Allow yourself to laugh out loud. Concede to the tears you will shed. Prepare yourself for Cleave’s poignancy, his control, and the pathos he so effortlessly evinces. Expect astonishment, for this is a work inspiring in depth and style; a work that alters perceptions. This is the kind of book that should be passed around, its secret guarded.

And as for the spoiler alert? Truth be told, spoiling anything in Cleave’s creation would be a challenge. From the instant you discover the pound coin’s image, eclipsed on the cover by a wash of energetic orange, the expectation is heightened that weightier mysteries reside inside. And Cleave doesn’t disappoint; his vigilance in unraveling the tale whilst maintaining a level of concealment, of abiding potentiality, is uncanny. The secret of Little Bee truly does rest in how the story unfolds -- the manner in which Cleave peels from unwilling participants the blood-stained veil of an enduring torture.

Opening with her desire to be a British pound coin instead of an African girl, Little Bee’s musings set the tone for a carnage that spans race, continents, and the bounds of the human condition. Evident from her hard-earned Queen’s English vernacular, this Nigerian immigrant arrives on English soil with a seemingly well-established sense of proportion featuring wit, humor, and the haunting ability to reflect with dignity on her abandoned homeland and current incarceration in an immigration detention center. The reader meets Sarah: the woman whose path crossed Little Bee’s on a Nigerian beach two years earlier. A career woman whose life has formed its own metaphorical stretch of isolated sand, Sarah’s disillusionment is underpinned by a shame so profound that she allows Little Bee into her life and clutches on to the hope the girl’s very existence suggests.

With his dual-voiced narration, Cleave weaves a tale that simply feels too exquisite, too affecting, to stream from just one pair of lips. Indeed, these women come to rely on one another as a result of the horrific encounter that resulted in Little Bee’s illegal entry, and Sarah’s witnessing of the slow demise of a marriage and a man. In fact, Little Bee arrives on Sarah’s doorstep clutching Andrew’s driver’s license and business card on the very day he is buried. These women each possess half of a complete story; it is evident that the only way forward is for each to take the other, and the reader, back to the beach. The resulting bricolaged domesticity, established with an immediate ease, is rendered imperative by Batman, Sarah’s four-year-old superhero son, whose “baddies” morphed into demonic form the day his father committed suicide. The jealousy of Sarah’s begrudging lover, however, cannot be overlooked; his dismantling efforts pose a threat to the strange little family, casting a foreboding pall on its reunion.

From the moment Sarah ushers Little Bee and her “memories from hell” into the living room, it becomes painfully evident that these women’s narratives are inexorably linked in the harrowing meeting that constituted for each a beginning and an ending -- far surpassing a few horrifying minutes during which “[they] met, that’s all.” Converging in Sarah’s kitchen with her confession that: “I realized I couldn’t remember the point at which she had stopped telling the story and I had picked up remembering it,” both women finally experience a release from the clutches of a tormenting past. The future presents its own challenges, but Cleave’s reader will surely recognize that Sarah’s generosity is again Little Bee’s salvation and Little Bee’s resilience shall become Sarah’s catalyst.

Little Bee is, above all else, a story of friendship, of the unlikely -- oftentimes dark -- places in which we forge human bonds. The book is a celebration of life, of culture, of womanhood, and globalization. It tells a tale of survival against all odds, of how its attainment lies beyond any borders of nationality, culture, or humanity. Survival finds a home in Little Bee, in “the living... not just the living in this particular country or in that particular country, but the secret, irresistible heart of the living.” Little Bee’s desire to be a British pound coin, so that people will “be pleased to see [her] coming” is matched with this reviewer’s disappointment in watching her go. It is time, however, to share the wealth.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1416589635
288 Pages